It’s a movement that began in 2009 with a jackhammer and the desire to transform the land surrounding USDA Headquarters into a healthier, more sustainable landscape. Immediately support for such an effort poured in and the first People’s Garden was built here in Washington, DC. A few months’ later employees outside the Capital Beltway received a challenge from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack encouraging them to be involved in these efforts and create similar gardens at their USDA facility or within the community where they work. A movement that started with one garden was about to spread its roots and it did just that in 2010.
This past year, thousands of USDA employees and partners heeded Secretary Vilsack’s call to give back by volunteering their time to participate in the department-wide People’s Garden Initiative. The garden at Headquarters is now just one of 1,241 People’s Gardens that have expanded to all 50 states, two U.S. territories, and three foreign countries. Thanks to USDA’s partnership with Keep America Beautiful the number of gardens doubled.
People’s Gardens are located on federally owned or leased property, at schools, faith-based centers, and other places within the community. Fresh fruits and vegetables are being grown for those in need and native trees, shrubs and flowers for wildlife. Sustainable landscape practices that nurture, maintain and protect the health of our soil, water and air are used. And these beautiful, thriving gardens became places for neighbors to gather, learn, share, and enjoy within both rural and urban areas.
The Initiative’s Share Your Harvest campaign was hugely successful resulting in People’s Gardens donating the most food, 20% of USDA’s total, for the Feds Feed Families summer food drive. USDA won first place from the Office of Personnel Management for donating more food than any other Federal Agency. This was the result of only 373 of the total gardens that grew and donated 122,522 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to their neighborhood food pantries, kitchens and shelters – improving access to healthy, affordable food at a local level in 2010.
Partnerships with schools took shape so youth would learn how to grow, tend, harvest and prepare nutritious seasonal produce, in the educational settings of the classroom, the garden, the kitchen, the school cafeteria and the home. This included an announcement for a $1 million grant to fund a People’s Garden School Pilot Program by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. One grantee will be selected this spring to develop and run community gardens at eligible high-poverty schools; teach students involved in the gardens about agriculture production practices, diet, and nutrition; and evaluate the learning outcomes.
Creating gardens has allowed employees new ways to connect with colleagues, neighbors, and local volunteer organizations in their community. These efforts, along with the hard work of organizations involved in similar efforts, have proven that the simple act of planting a garden can make real and lasting change to improve food access and promote healthy lifestyles in communities with highest risk and greatest need. Let’s build on these successes and broaden our reach in 2011.