The idea certainly isn’t new.
In ages past, the fecund fields that spread in all directions around country villages and towns were used to raise crops that fed the people in those communities. A growing movement says the time has come to move back toward those roots.
A workshop at North Central College Friday afternoon — cohosted by the Fighting Obesity Reaching healthy Weight Among Residents of DuPage (FORWARD) initiative and DuPage County — took aim at the goal of establishing community gardens that enable people to grow food for themselves, their families and their neighbors. The benefits are many, participants said, affecting wellness, the environment, local economies, neighborhood connections and other ingredients that comprise quality of life.
Because this part of the Midwest has some of the most ideal growing conditions to be found, the region is particularly well suited to hyper-localized farming.
“For us, it’s pretty simple: it’s about access and affordability,” said Stephen Ericson, director of food procurement for the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
The Geneva agency provides groceries to area hunger relief organizations, including the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Naperville. In addition to working with food producers in the region — among them a recent agreement to buy 170,000 ears of corn from a nearby grower — the NIFB connects food pantries with those who oversee community gardens. The agency would like to find ways to empower more low-income families with a direct hand in the process by giving them resources enabling them to grow food in gardens near their homes, or in their own backyards.
Ericson noted that some 8 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables go to waste in the U.S. annually, nearly all of it ending up in landfills. That is especially troubling, he said, because manufacturers and other business entities are running leaner than they did in the past, and there is less food to give away.
“It’s one of the few frontiers that’s out there to help feed people ... really the only solution, ultimately, to helping solve hunger,” he said.
The concept is already helping families in Naperville. Logan Wasson, one of about 100 certified master gardeners in DuPage County, developed two community gardens in the city that yielded two tons of fresh produce for the hungry last year, he said.
The most prolific of them — a 400-square-foot urban farm on a raised bed installed in 2010 behind the Kraft plant on Ogden Avenue — grows food that goes entirely to Loaves & Fishes.
“I’m probably more proud of my other troubled child,” said Ericson, alluding to the four clay-rich rectangles set aside for a community garden in the West Street plots owned by the Naperville Park District.
It’s taken considerable tilling to make that soil workable, and that emboldens the weeds. Wasson doesn’t try pretend gardening isn’t hard work, but emphasizes the payoff is worth it.
“Don’t get discouraged. It’s part of the gardening process. You have to have a thick skin,” he said.
The food that comes out of those plots, and surplus yield picked from others rented by residents on the West Street site, is much appreciated at Loaves & Fishes.
“It’s gardeners from throughout our area that are starting to do that,” said Jane Macdonald, the pantry’s director of client engagement. “I can’t tell you how meaningful that is to our families.”
The pantry has found ways to pay it forward. When its annual awareness-raising event, A Day Without Hunger, was held in June, one of the activities had kids put tomato seeds into potted dirt and take them home to watch what happened next.
“We even have children that bring a tomato back to us, to share with our families,” Macdonald said.
Pushing down roots
Other panelists also shared some of what they have learned from the process of transforming idle patches of dirt into feeding fields.
Tina Koral launched GardenWorks last year, melding her love for gardening with her husband’s carpentry affinity to offer 4-by-8-foot raised bed gardens to families who use area food pantries, including support for the first couple of growing seasons.
“We feel that people should be able to grow their own food at home,” Koral said, noting that the harvest of that ability includes greater self-sufficiency, pride and sound stewardship of the earth.
The couple also have built a 30-by-30-foot garden in Village Green Park, near College of DuPage, on land donated by the Glen Ellyn Park District, where they raise food for families who can’t grow their own produce at home.
The Korals, whose aim is to “give a garden to anyone who needs one,” built beds last year for four local households, providing fresh food for 13 kids and their families.
GardenWorks undertook a capital campaign earlier this year with a goal of raising $2,000 to provide 10 local struggling families with their own gardens. With help from a 27-member volunteer group, the organization has built 14 west suburban gardens in 2013, Koral said, including some in Naperville.
Takes a village
Community buy-in is a critical element to successful shared gardens, FORWARD consulting director Ann Marchetti said.
Along with such features as well-developed biking and walking trails and enhanced public parks, community gardens build camaraderie and offer a great way to exercise, which aids the effort to reduce obesity rates.
DuPage, which is far more socioeconomically and culturally diverse than it was in the past, now mirrors the nation in overweight rates.
“Years ago we thought that we were white, wealthy and wonderful,” Marchetti said.
Noting that with half of adults and one in three children now meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of obese — of a body mass index at 30 or more — she emphasized the need for kids to learn how to take better care of themselves. Handing them a pair of gardening gloves and a trowel can help.
“Children don’t eat what they don’t know,” Marchetti said. “If they know where their food is coming from, they’re more likely to eat it.”
At Hammerschmidt Elementary School in Lombard School District 44, the thriving new community garden began with a mom who had spent a couple of years “agitating” for better lunch food in the cafeteria. When Brigitte Baur started bringing in fresh fruits and vegetables to school, a couple at a time, for the kids to sample, the response was a surprise.
“The adults couldn’t believe it. The kids were nuts for it,” she said.
After the planning committee met in January, a crew of parent volunteers constructed six beds — one for each grade — on land donated by the village, using donated soil and other contributed materials. One parent donated graphic design expertise and another who’s a landscape architect did the design.
“There’s been a huge amount of volunteer effort in this,” Baur said.
On planting day, the kids came out to help.
“It was controlled chaos, as I said afterward,” she said. “Nobody bled.”
This summer, families have volunteered to cover the watering. And Baur considered it “a really good sign” when the school-supplies lists came out, and included gardening gloves.
She emphasized that while it takes commitment, support and a good deal of work, community gardening is within virtually anyone’s reach.
“I’m not a master gardener,” Baur said. “I’m just some schlub that’s trying to make things happen.”