Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack inaugurated the first USDA “People’s Garden” on February 12, 2009, the birth date of President Abraham Lincoln. (President Lincoln founded the U. S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, calling it the “People’s Department.”) Secretary Vilsack ‘s goal is for USDA agencies and employees to lead by example; i.e., promote the establishment of community gardens throughout the country to increase access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, especially in low-income communities.
When USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Midwest Regional Administrator Ollice Holden learned of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s (CBG) success in establishing community gardens in underserved areas of Chicago, he wanted to get involved. CBG’s acclaimed programs for high school students and young adults serve both as a training ground for students of sustainable organic-method farming and as a means of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to “food deserts” in Chicago (neighborhoods lacking full-service grocery stores).
In March 2009, through a meeting arranged by Kate Maehr of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Holden met with CBG staff and asked how USDA employees could support their urban gardening efforts. They responded by offering to train USDA volunteers to plant and maintain a new garden site at 215 N. Kenneth on Chicago’s west side, working side-by-side with CBG’s Windy City Harvest program participants.
The Chicago-based organization NeighborSpace owns the quarter-acre plot of land at 215 N. Kenneth. They have an agreement with the Chicago Botanic Garden allowing CBG to use the site for its Windy City Harvest program. Planting, weeding and other maintenance is shared by the USDA FNS employees and the CBG’s Windy City Harvest students. Joan Hopkins, Grower and Site Leader, says of the partnership, “The garden has taught me a lot this year. I learned about succession planting, crop selection and composting. I enjoyed meeting the diversity of people involved with the People’s Garden from the USDA. Many were surprised to see something as beautiful as Kenneth in an urban community.”
In addition to helping beautify the neighborhood, enhancing relationships across multiple organizations, and serving as a hands-on learning space, this People’s Garden has held true to Vilsak’s goal for the USDA to help promote community gardens as a way to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables in communities in need. The garden has donated 1500 pounds of produce to the Presentation Catholic Church Food Pantry and 350 pounds to Breakthrough Urban Youth Ministries in it’s first year! Two goals for next year are to grow particular crops that the community has expressed interest in, as well as starting an on-site market stand.
For more information about the Chicago People’s Garden, please contact Angela Mason, Director of Community Gardening at Chicago Botanic Garden, at 847.650.7304.