These Garden Mentors Are Growing Equity | Civil Eats

These Garden Mentors Are Growing Equity

Master gardeners are helping fight food insecurity by supporting home gardening to build healthier communities.

Share a Seed Founder Reana Kovalcik (right) chats with Erin Palmer, ANC 4B02 Commissioner. (Photo credit: Hannah Packman, Slow Food DC)

Share a Seed Founder Reana Kovalcik (right) chats with Erin Palmer, ANC 4B02 Commissioner. (Photo credit: Hannah Packman, Slow Food DC)

Will the pandemic gardening trend fizzle out more cities open up and many Americans start returning to the office? Most signs point to no.

Seed demand has been even higher in 2021 than it was in 2020, and garden and seed leaders say that enthusiasm for growing food remains high. As a result, a wide variety of initiatives have sprouted up in the past year to support new home and community gardeners.

“I feel like I’ve been in a bajillion online summits,” said Jovan Sage, a gardener who works at the intersection of food culture, herbalism, fertility, and seed advocacy as a board member for Seed Savers Exchange. The most recent was The Great Grow Along, a virtual event that featured experts from around the country leading sessions on growing food in raised beds and container gardening for pollinators.

“I talked about medicinal herbs and how people could grow them in their own backyards . . . and then everybody put out information that could help people grow things. Seed Savers has put [out] some great information. A lot of companies started trying to figuring out, ‘How do we help people during this time?’”

Among the many other resources newly available to aspiring gardeners is The Foodscaper, an online magazine filled with articles that help people grow food at home, including guides to transforming lawns into gardens and growing fruit in tight spaces. And gardening experts all over the country are offering educational services. Carmen DeVito in New York City and Jamie Brennan in Boise, for example, now provide virtual consultations and coaching. Not everyone is digging into pots on their own patios, either: When Nature’s Path opened its 2021 Gardens for Good grant program to support community gardens, the organic food company received 350 applications—about 10 times the number it received the previous year.

Garden mentors and funders say that while gardening itself does not generally fill major gaps in the food supply, helping more people grow food—in a way that centers equity—can lead to healthier people and communities.

“Anywhere where we have more people understanding what it takes to grow food from seed, that only helps our local food systems,” Sage said. And while there will likely be a dip in engagement at some point, she said, programs that increase gardeners’ success rates by filling gaps in resources and knowledge could have a meaningful impact on cultivating a longer-term shift toward greater participation in food production. “Finding that joy, when they are able to actually get things to grow and can harvest the crop—that’s the thing that’s going to keep people in,” she said.

We profiled three initiatives that are working to ensure that more people have the access and skills needed to grow their own food.

‘A Plot to Save the World’

Nate Kleinman, the founder of the Philadelphia-based Experimental Farm Network, created the Cooperative Gardens Commission with other volunteer collaborators early in the pandemic. The goal was to get more people who might struggle to access resources growing food, and they used their connections to seed companies as a jumping off point.

“We figured if folks can’t get access to seeds, they’re not going to be able to grow any food. And we also knew that with so many people out of work, there were going to be big problems . . . with poverty and inequality,” he said.

Kleinman and hundreds of volunteers solicited seed donations and created a seed distribution working group. They tapped community organizations all over the country to act as “seed hubs” and handle distribution. In 2020, about 250 applied. The Commission estimates it has received about 1,500 pounds of donated seed worth $300,000. Seeds have gone to 12,000 community and individual gardens in 41 states. The group has prioritized distribution to marginalized communities and sends culturally important seeds based on community requests.

The Commission also created a hub for educational resources on its website, including a guide for getting started in any setting, resources for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) growers from Soul Fire Farm, and a resource-sharing map where people can list or find things like gardening equipment or land. Finally, it launched a garden hotline anyone can call with questions about soil or sunlight.

Kleinman said the future of the organization is uncertain, especially since many of the volunteers are returning to full-time work. They are still distributing seeds and received more applications for hubs in 2021, but long-term viability will depend on funding. He hopes it will continue in some form or inspire other efforts. “There was a need for an organization like this before the pandemic, and there will be after. Inequality is not going away. Hunger is not going away. Lack of healthy, local, organic food is not going away. And so many communities really value the support that we’re providing,” he said. “With some basic resources, people should be able to grow at least some of their own food.”

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Planting Health Equity

After New Jersey Health Initiatives announced it was making funds available for projects dedicated to health interventions in local low-income communities, urban planning professor Mahbubur Meenar and his team at Rowan University met with several community groups in their town, Glassboro, to create a proposal. The group settled on food equity as a pathway to health equity with a focus on home gardening.

A Get Up & Grow Seed Packet. (Photo courtesy of Glassboro Grows)

A Get Up & Grow Seed Packet. (Photo courtesy of Glassboro Grows)

Glassboro Grows launched in February, in partnership with the Bullock Garden Project. So far, the team has recruited about 20 families to participate. Each receives a growing kit with a bag of soil as well as pea and lettuce seeds. Bullock Garden Project founder Sonya Harris, a master gardener, provides customized virtual workshops and ongoing support tailored to their space and any other restrictions. Families also have access to weekly sessions with health coaches, who can provide customized feedback on food and other health questions. Because of COVID, “we had to do something that would be more intimate and personal, dealing with one family at a time, and something that we could do virtually,” Meenar said.

He hopes the one-on-one engagement will help expand the existing gardening culture in the town, with a new community garden recently established and other efforts underway.

Of course, Meenar pointed out that while the pandemic inspired many people to begin gardening, for others—especially those faced with employment and child-care challenges—it became much more difficult. “If you are really struggling . . . maybe you can’t care about these things,” he said. “And I don’t think this will really solve food insecurity . . . but it’s still a good thing, for many different reasons. When you’re nurturing some plants, maybe you will care to cook them. Gardening is good for mental health.”

His team has created the Glassboro Health Equity Coalition to identify what the next phase of the project should look like. Ideally, he said, it will build on the model and potentially look at another part of the overall food equity package. “This is just one small piece of the big picture,” he said. “In year two, rather than focusing on individuals, can we as a community come up with programs that resonate with a broader representation of the community?”

Shifting Seed Resources

Reana Kovalcik got the idea for Share a Seed, now a program of Slow Food USA, after working with mutual aid organizations during the pandemic and realizing that scarce seeds and gardening supplies would put low-income folks at the end of the line.

“The supply chains have reopened, but for many people, that changes nothing about their ability to garden or have access to these resources,” said Kovalcik, a communications professional who has worked for various food and farming nonprofits. “I thought, ‘How can I create abundance in this time of scarcity?’ Both in terms of material and community, because at the same time that people weren’t able to find materials or seeds, they were also experiencing a scarcity of human connection.”

DC Councilmember Janeese Lewis George attends a Share a Seed event at Upshur Community Garden, Ward 4. (Photo credit: Hannah Packman, Slow Food DC)

Washtingon, D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George attends a Share a Seed event at Upshur Community Garden, Ward 4. (Photo credit: Hannah Packman, Slow Food DC)

Since then, Kovalcik has carried her seed catalog, packets, and gardening supplies all over Washington, D.C. Slow Food USA launched the program in five cities this March, including Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, and Springfield, Illinois. Kovalcik says the program is modeled on seed sharing, not swapping, which implies that an exchange must take place. On the other hand, she says, “‘share’ means we could exchange, but if you have a surplus, you can create abundance for someone else.”

Those looking to donate extra seeds can mail them to one of the participating Slow Food chapters. Local leaders then distribute them to people who need them while also providing mentorship in gardening. In D.C., Kovalcik sets up tables at farmers’ markets, community gardens, and breweries, where people can come talk to her about how to grow and take seeds and supplies home with them. Many approach her with the idea that they’d love to grow things but don’t have the space in the city, and she helps walk them through their options given the constraints.

Kovalcik is also coordinating with groups that are already connected to urban communities that could benefit from gardening resources. For instance, Plantita Power is an organization centered on the healing power of gardening for queer, BIPOC people. “I raided my entire seed catalog and gave them all the healing herbs that we have,” Kovalcik said. “I pulled out every holy basil and chamomile [seed] and put together a big package.”

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She’s also working with Kyanite Pantry, a mobile community food pantry started by plant-based chef Kya Parker initially to feed protesters in the wake of the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd. “Kya has been bringing seeds and gardening equipment to her weekly distributions out in the community. Just like you can get a hot meal, you also get a bag of soil and you have seeds,” she said. Kovalcik has also been able to pass on pots and seedlings to Parker to be distributed.

Overall, Kovalcik‘s goal with Share A Seed is to redistribute existing resources rather than diverting new resources away from other food insecurity efforts. Like Kleinman, she’s not sure if the group will operate long after we move past COVID-19, but she hopes pieces of the program have inspired other shifts, such as more seeds or plants included as elements of mutual aid organizing. When she created 100 planting kits using donated seeds from Pennsylvania-based Earth Spring Farm to be distributed through the D.C. Public Library and they “went like hotcakes,” she started working on a more permanent relationship with the library.

During such a difficult year, Kovalcik said that the impact the program has had on people’s spirits is clear. “The amount of joy that it has created, it’s been overwhelming,” she said. “The goal of this project is not to solve world hunger; it’s to reconnect people with the land and with one another.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many additional publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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