Garden Program Allows Kids to Get Hands Dirty With Gardening

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Christa Berg instructs students on planting.
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Students watch Jennifer Behm plant a seedling.
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Instructors and students work together for harvest.
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Colorful signs mark each row at the garden.

Boys and girls from College for Kids classes scrambled around the garden on a sunny morning planting tomatoes and cabbages for a Minnesota garden program. Instructors Christa Berg and Jennifer Behm encouraged them to dig deep holes so tomatoes can root all the way up their stems and carefully tamp the soil around cabbage seedlings. The young children in the Itasca Community College summer program also set out pepper plants and built a bean tunnel.

With a plot on the east edge of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, donated by the University of Minnesota North Central Research and Outreach Center, the Plant to Plate garden gathers volunteers of all ages to grow nutritious produce that is donated to the local food shelf – 1,000 to 2,000 pounds each season.

“The project mixes up a wide spectrum of folks, and the variety of ages and occupations working together is fun,” says Joan Foster, former Plant to Plate director. “And the gardens are right down the hill from the cow barn so the soil there is so fertile. You plant a seed there, and it just explodes.”

Jeff Janacek, who has volunteered with the program since it began six years ago, marvels that so many children had no idea where corn came from, or had never planted a seed in the ground.

“I think we’re making an impact there,” Janacek says. “Getting the kids’ hands dirty, when so much of what they do is sedentary and antiseptic these days, and getting them to plant something so they can see the fruits of their labor is pretty thrilling.”

Holly Downing and Laurie Benge, Itasca County public health nurses, are the project architects. Inspired by Frances Moore Lapp’s book Diet for a Small Planet, which emphasized organic gardening, vegetarian diets and local food, Downing enlisted Benge, her co-worker and an experienced gardener, to launch the venture Downing dubbed Plant to Plate six years ago.

Fifth-graders from Southwest Elementary School in Grand Rapids have been involved for several years, and teacher Nancy Mike-Johnson knows some of her students – now in high school – have had a home garden ever since fifth grade because of Plant to Plate. Former fifth-graders Jace Mann and Nicole Uzelac say they loved working in the gardens. Mann helps his grandmother garden during the summer and wishes he could return to Plant to Plate next year. The experience has inspired Uzelac to garden at home, and she plans to volunteer at Plant to Plate in the future.

YMCA campers worked in the gardens several hours a week this summer. In addition to learning where their food comes from and giving back to people in need, children benefit from interaction with caring adults who work side by side with them in the garden. Retirees Barb and Doug Veit have volunteered since the project’s inception.

“We really like the idea of community coming together to produce healthy food,” says Barb, a former elementary school teacher. “That’s such an important thing for us. If we can help get healthy food to more people, that’s what motivates us to stay involved with Plant to Plate.”

Demand at the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank is up 11 percent the first half of this year over the same period in 2008, says Executive Director Sue Estee. Seven hundred and forty one households (2,034 individuals) visited the Grand Rapids Food Shelf – one of 33 food shelves under Second Harvest – in July 2009 compared to 647 households (1,821 individuals) in July 2008.

“We average about 21 pounds of free food per individual coming to the Food Shelf and distribute more than 40,000 pounds of free food to families in need each month,” says Grand Rapids Food Shelf Program Manager Ellen Christmas. “Many families have to make a second visit because they need to feed their children who are home from school and not receiving meals there during the summer. Many families are applying for the first time as unemployment is at an all-time high in our area.”

A $2,000 grant from the Northland Foundation supported the Plant to Plate project last year, but almost all seeds, time, labor and equipment are donated. National companies like Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Selected Seeds contribute seeds, and local nurseries donate plants and mulch that the city public works department delivers to the site. Volunteers take responsibility for planting, weeding and harvesting by adopting one of the 21 beds.

The Minnesota State Horticultural Society awarded Plant to Plate its Youth and Environment Award in 2008.

“Plant to Plate is a great community project,” says Lynn Cottingham, former nutrition outreach manager at Second Harvest Food Bank in Grand Rapids, “and it’s wonderful that so many people have stepped forward. I think they realize it’s important to be involved in something that’s good for kids.”

Plant to Plate Mission Statement

The Plant to Plate garden project unites members to work together to grow nutritious food and provide outdoor activity to impact health and provide hope for the hungry. It is a place to learn where our food comes from and form connections with each other and our natural world.

Plant to Plate Details 

Between 1,000 and 1,825 pounds of produce comes to the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank from Plant to Plate each season. 

Plant to Plate garden size: 54 feet by 145 feet
21 individual beds are each: 4 feet by 26 feet 

Crops grown: tomatoes, squash, carrots, beets, green beans, zucchini, radishes, lettuce, peas, broccoli, peppers, onions, pumpkins and edible flowers. 

Grow Your Own

Looking to put together a program like Plant to Plate? The people at Second Harvest North Central Food Bank will be happy to help. 

Susan Estee
Executive Director

Ellen Christmas
Program Manager
Second Harvest North Central Food Bank
P.O. Box 5130, 2222 Cromell Drive
Grand Rapids, MN 55744
218-326-4420, phone; 218-999-5252, fax

A Master Gardener, Margaret Haapoja writes about gardening, the environment and more from her home in Bovey, Minnesota.