Growing to Give

John Krzton-Presson noticed a garden used by the culinary arts program at Des Moines Area Community College in Newton wasn’t being maintained when students were on break. The horticulture and local foods coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, wondered, “would ISU Extension and Outreach Master Gardeners be able to look after it while students were away?”

That question formed the foundation for a partnership that now includes not only Iowa Master Gardeners and the Des Moines Area Community College, but also the Salvation Army and other groups working to fight food insecurity in central Iowa.

A year after first posing the question, Krzton-Presson and Master Gardener volunteers in Jasper County tend to a 50-by-50-foot garden where potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, winter squash, beets and carrots are grown. The produce collected from the garden is donated to food pantries in the area, providing fresh, nutritious vegetables to neighbors in need.

“A new way to approach issues of hunger and food insecurity isn’t that people are lacking calories, but to take a look at the type of food they are getting,” Krzton-Presson says. “Much of the food available at food pantries are items that can sit on shelves for an extended period of time. We are trying to help offer a healthier option.”

Food pantry clients are responding.

“On days when fresh produce is available, we have a waiting line. People are here at 7 a.m.,” says Kelly Zach, social service case manager with the Salvation Army in Newton. “They know the fresh fruits and vegetables are the first things to go and they want to be first in line.”

To ensure as many people as possible receive the fresh produce, workers at the Salvation Army divide produce into individual servings before the doors open. They are then made available to the 103 families who receive the fresh bread and produce available twice a week.

“Our clients talk to us constantly about how much healthier their meals are,” Zach says.

The partnership also has been positive for Jasper County’s Master Gardeners.

“We encourage our Master Gardeners to drop the produce off themselves,” Krzton-Presson says. “They get some face-to-face time with the workers at the food pantry and see how excited people are when they pull up with boxes of fresh produce. They get to see that the clients
at the food pantry are everyday people, neighbors who just need a little extra help. It gives them a lot of satisfaction knowing their work is directly helping people in their community.”

Krzton-Presson was able to increase the amount of produce delivered to the Salvation Army through one of the Growing Together mini grants funded by the United States Department of Agriculture SNAP-Education program.
 In 2018, more than $90,000 helped fund 26 initiatives across Iowa to combat issues of food insecurity, allowing Master Gardener volunteers to improve and increase their production of fruits
and vegetables in both donation and demonstration gardens. Grant money is spent to purchase vegetable seeds and fruit trees for donation gardens, as well as to purchase hand-washing stations to make sure produce is being picked fresh with food safety in mind.

Over the last two years Master Gardener volunteers have donated over 145,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food pantries across the state.

“Master Gardeners have been supporting their communities with volunteer projects for the past 40 years,” says Susan DeBlieck, Master Gardener coordinator with ISU Extension and Outreach. “One in eight Iowans are food insecure and these donations of fresh fruits and vegetables provide families with more healthy choices.”

These grants have allowed Master Gardener volunteer programs to flourish.

Volunteers in Buena Vista County work to provide produce for local food pantries, and they have begun partnering with
a local senior apartment to grow fresh vegetables on-site. A pair of raised beds were constructed with residents tending to the plants throughout the growing season.

“The residents of the apartments are thrilled because they love to garden,” says Stacie Hewett, program coordinator with ISU Extension and Outreach in Buena Vista County. “Our Master Gardeners are so giving, they enjoy being able to share their knowledge of gardening with anyone they can.”

The two raised beds have produced over 300 pounds of fresh vegetables in

the first year, and Master Gardeners are already looking for ways to expand their level of production. The search is on for a community garden location in Storm Lake.

Master Gardener volunteers in Buena Vista County also reached out to Latino community members to better understand the types of vegetables they are familiar with and enjoy.