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Gardens for Good

Updated: May 10, 2022

The past two years have been rough for many. Social isolation, financial hardship, and Covid uncertainty weighed heavily on individuals and communities alike. For Deon Haider, a first-year Ramsey County Master Gardener, it was the perfect time to launch a Gardens for Good program. Deon was inspired by Hennepin County Master Gardeners who started a program by the same name in 2020. The program takes excess produce grown by Master Gardeners and donates it to communities with poor access to fresh food. “The program was created as a community response to bring healthy food to people who needed it,” said Deon.

Bringing food to people in need is a mission that Deon is passionate about. She works for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Education (SNAP-Ed) program with the University of Minnesota Extension, a federally funded program that works with low-income people and communities to increase food access, nutrition information, physical activity, and well being. Additionally, the program engages in policy change to help increase access to healthy food in underserved communities. Deon saw a natural coming together of her work as a Master Gardener and her work with the University to identify St. Paul communities that need better access to fresh foods.

Together with Betsy Christensen, the Health Improvement Program Coordinator from Saint Paul Public Housing, Wilson High Rise was identified as a site in need of food support. From the start, Deon wanted to ensure that the Gardens for Good program looked a little different than traditional food distribution programs. While most distribute pre-packaged donated food, Deon wanted people to choose their fruits and vegetables. “When people can select their own food, they’re more excited about it and more likely to use it.”

Development and launch of the program involved a team of Master Gardener volunteers who went "above and beyond," says Deon, including Terry Smith, Beth Fritcher, Linnea Tani, Marlys Daugherty and Laurel Watt. The Gardens for Good planning committee gathered in the months before the growing season to create a workable program. Volunteers collected recipes to give with the food, created a plan to collect donations, and solicited volunteers from the Ramsey County Master Gardeners to participate in donating produce from their gardens. The program went live the second week of July 2021 and ran through the end of September. Each Thursday, gardeners brought donations to “The Barn,” the Ramsey County Master Gardeners’ headquarters. Deon and her team sorted, ensured quality, weighed donations, and loaded produce for delivery to the Wilson High Rise.

There they set up produce like a farmers' market stand. Volunteers came each week to chat with residents and answer questions about the available produce. Visiting with residents was exciting and resulted in unexpected community building. Residents shared stories about the produce they tried and enjoyed. Volunteers encouraged residents to try new produce and offered tips on how to prepare it. “At the start of the summer, residents were wary of the ground cherries because they looked weird,” said Deon. “By the end of the summer, we couldn't bring enough ground cherries! People lined up early to get them.” Volunteers learned a lot of new tips and tricks, too! “Residents were telling us things like ‘you need to do fried green tomatoes with Roma tomatoes because they hold together better!’”

Deon and her team made note of what went well in their inaugural year. For example, residents loved being able to take herb plants back to their homes, according to Deon. “The basil plants last year were a huge hit! One woman came to show us how her basil plant was growing each week. The response from residents was overwhelmingly positive. The most frequent feedback was that people really enjoyed it and that they wanted more produce!”

Getting more produce to the high rise is a key goal for future years. Deon and her team also realized they needed to make it easier for gardeners to get their donations to The Barn They're going to look at creating neighborhood collection sites to make donating easier next year, and a weekly newsletter will remind gardeners to donate, share what produce is being requested, and encourage sharing of stories from volunteers and residents.

Deon is excited to develop signs printed in both English and Hmong to add to the produce stand next year. One of these new signs will be a chart that compares the spice level of donated peppers to more familiar pepper varieties. Some residents were excited by the prospect of a super hot pepper, others were wary if they didn’t know what to expect.

Deon is excited about the future of the Ramsey County Gardens for Good program. She hopes to make a community cookbook and get more volunteers to grow and donate South East Asian vegetables for the Hmong residents of the high rise. Deon also hopes to get an earlier start this year so she can offer spring vegetables and more plants to residents. Another goal is to increase the amount of fruit offered each week. Next year she envisions partnering with school and community gardens to increase fruit donations. The program would particularly like to see more onions, lettuce, arugula, carrots, radishes, ground cherries, potatoes and melons this year. Depending on how restrictions on social gatherings play out in the coming months, Deon also is hopeful to expand social aspects of the program like community meals and cooking classes.

Deon encourages gardeners interested in donating produce from their gardens to check with their local food shelf. “And if anyone knows of a fruit farm that wants to donate, please contact me!”

Morgan Weinert, Ramsey County Master Gardener Volunteer


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