By Gary Brock
XENIA — More than 23 tons of fresh locally grown food was donated in 2016 to food pantries and agencies throughout Ohio in a new initiative by county Master Gardener programs called “GROW Ohio — Feed the Hungry.”
In total, 46,198 pounds of food were gathered by the Master Gardeners in 14 counties, according to Denise Johnson, program manager for the Ohio Master Gardener Program.
“I was very pleased. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some counties really embraced it and were very excited,” Johnson said. “One of the key things I wanted was to meet the needs of their county — we want to be ‘countycentric’ — and they do projects their county needs. What I wanted to happen was the Master Gardeners working with food pantries and homeless shelters to determine what was needed and do those things. I wanted them to feel that what they were doing was going to help real people in the community.”
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2016 report on “Household Food Security” in the U.S. in 2015, 1 in 6 of Ohio’s 4.74 million households, or 764,000, reported food insecurity in 2013-15, and 313,000, or 1 in 15, reported very low food security. Ohio tied with Oregon as both the sixth-worst state in food insecurity and eighth-worst state in very low food security.
This food insecurity issue was on the mind of Greene County Extension horticulture program assistant Kim Hupman, who coordinated the GROW Ohio program with the Master Gardeners in her county. It was one of the Master Gardener programs that took part in the food initiative last year.
The Greene County group finished second in the state behind Franklin County, donating 7,365 pounds of food to needy residents in the county. Franklin County donated 10,386 pounds.
As an incentive, Johnson organized a contest among the 14 Master Gardener programs participating, dividing them up in three categories based on the size of the group. Franklin and Greene County were the top two in the large membership category; Hancock County took first in the medium size donating 4,848 lbs. (see related feature on their success in this edition); and Fayette County took first in the small group category with 1,282 lbs. (See list.) The winners each received $500 to use in this year’s program.
“I was very proud and pleased that we were number two in the state. We worked very hard to get that accomplished,” Hupman said.
Food deserts in community
She said when Johnson proposed the idea, “I rallied the troops here. Local food, food insecurity and food deserts are very high on our list of things in the county that we see a need to address. We are very passionate about this.” Does she see food insecurity as an issue in Greene County? “Very much so,” she responded.
She said they pinpointed several garden projects that were already addressing this issue, and some that were but didn’t know they were. “We started with Mary Help of Christian church in Fairborn and their fabulous garden. They donate to the fish pantry in Fairborn.”
She said there is also a program at the Greene County Juvenile Detention Center where the Master Gardeners go every year and teach classes on how to grow fruits and vegetable, “to get these kids involved and engaged, and to give them a feeling of self-worth and pride. When they do these things and succeed they feel better about themselves and this changes how they interact in society. We asked this program for their produce for our GROW Ohio initiative.”
In addition, Hupman said there was a Master Gardener volunteer who found different farmers’ markets in Greene County where they were willing to give them “seconds” of things they couldn’t sell or keep. So the farmers donated those produce items. “She was able to convince the farmers to donate their leftovers and she collected it herself on a regular basis and provide to the fish pantries. She was incredible,” Hupman said.
“We also involved the SNAP Ed program,” she added. There is a “Cooking Matters” program where eligible residents are taught how to shop and cook with fresh produce “so they can spend the money they receive wisely instead of buying just processed food. Every week I would get a list and we would gather as much of the fresh produce that we could from gardens and projects, and donate it so we could send it home with those in this program.”
She also met with L & P Ison Produce in Xenia, and they picked for about three hours, getting about 30 pounds of beans. donating those to the Beavercreek Vineyard Food Pantry. The Xenia and Fairborn Fish Pantry received the most of the produce during the initiative. She said some some Greene Countians were pulling from their own private gardens and donating, as well.
“It was a thrilling program and I was very excited to do it.” There are 117 members in the Greene County Master Gardeners Program.
Brian Kleinke, agriculture educator for the Greene County Extension office, was also pleased with the level of food donated by its program. “I was confident that our Master Gardeners would pull through. They have a lot of pride in their county and community. But I was surprised at how well we did against major metropolitan areas who have well-established urban garden and urban agriculture programs,” he said.
He said local food food systems and local economies are concerns of his. “Greene County is a heavy agronomic county – corn, soybeans, wheat and livestock — that’s the bread and butter of Greene County. But also there is a huge portion of Greene County tat is under-represented. Those areas are those that don’t have a lot of contact with County Extension or ever utilize Extension. Those are the people we wanted to bring into the Extension world to provide them education and services.”
He said Greene County has pockets of “food deserts” or areas completely void of access to fresh foods. Those are Fairborn and “even Xenia is on its way to being a food desert.” He said one of the people who has played a major role in helping with this issue is Master Gardener Denise Wetzel. He said she focuses solely on vegetable production and all of the vegetables she produces is donated to the local food bank. “She was big help in our state food challenge,” he said. “She has been our torch bearer.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.