The summer’s harvest is winding down, but two Northeast Master Gardeners would like to see it go on forever.
In a normal summer, Ann Thureen, Audubon Park, and Darielle Dannen, Columbia Park, members of the University of Minnesota’s Master Gardener program, would be giving presentations to gardening groups and making appearances at farmers’ markets throughout Hennepin County. Like the rest of 2020, however, this summer was anything but normal. COVID-19 put a halt to in-person classes before they even got started. That left a lot of gardeners with plenty of time to garden, and to think.
As the pandemic took hold, Thureen began to think about the people who use food shelves, and the many “food deserts” in the county. “I thought, what are we, as Master Gardeners, doing to help people with a food crisis?” she said. Thureen’s yard is too shady to grow vegetables, but she contacted Terry Straub, coordinator of the Master Gardener program at the U, and put her question to him. He connected her with Caroline Hallstrom, another Master Gardener who was thinking along the same lines.
The two got together and devised a food collection program – Gardens for Good – in which Master Gardeners could donate fresh produce from their own gardens. They turned to the U’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), regional coordinator, Sharmyn Phipps, who worked with Minneapolis Public Housing to work out distribution details.
“There are 39 public housing groups in Minneapolis,” said Thureen. The gardeners divided the county into six geographical districts and identified elders in each district who weren’t served by other programs to receive the produce. In Northeast, that was the Dickman Park Apartments.
Another group that received food was Bii Di Gain Dash Anwebi (“Come in. Rest.” in Ojibwe.) in the Phillips neighborhood. Excess food and large squashes were given to Eat for Equity in the Longfellow neighborhood, which provides cooked food for large groups of people.
Lorrie Stromme, coordinator of the Grace Center, 1500 Sixth Street NE, which houses Little Kitchen Food Shelf, is also a Master Gardener. She offered the food shelf’s space for sorting and refrigeration. Thureen called it a “godsend.”
Master Gardeners were contacted about the program via social media and enthusiastically joined in. “Every Monday, the Master Gardeners would pick their produce and bring it to the Little Kitchen to sort and package. We’d put three to four pounds of produce in a bag, giving each person who came to the food shelf a variety of in-season foods, including tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, plums, pears,” Thureen said. She noted that the group was especially careful to follow safe food-handling procedures as they sorted and packaged. On Tuesdays, the produce was delivered by volunteer drivers.
Because of a late start, the first delivery was made at the end of July.
A blueberry farmer who sells at the Northeast Farmers Market heard about the program and asked, “How many hundred pounds of blueberries could you use?” Thureen said with satisfaction that he arranged for the donation of 250 lbs. of blueberries from his family’s farm in Michigan.
Stromme said 177 lbs. of produce came through the door of the Grace Center on Aug. 25. “They donated … a lot of gorgeous tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, potatoes, green beans, eggplants – even okra and plums,” she told the Northeaster. “Today, the produce was sorted, bagged up, and delivered to 35 residents at Dickman Park Apartments.”
One week, 47 customers also received a small bouquet of fresh flowers in a Mason jar with their food bags. By the end of September, 1,712 lbs. of food had been donated and more than 216 people had been helped.
Dannen raises vegetables and chickens on her double lot in Columbia Park. “We always have way more food than my husband and I can use. It was so good to be able to connect with folks who need it.”
Her six raised beds produced beets, peppers, tomatoes, patty pan squash, collard greens, corn and “a ton of beans.” She also was able to donate pears and apples from trees in her yard. Asked how many pounds of food she had contributed, she said, “I should have been weighing! I filled a five-gallon bucket every week.”
She found it exciting to check in on social media and see the mounds of food the Master Gardeners had donated. “I told my husband, ‘Look, there are our pears!’”
Thureen said gardeners will be surveyed as the season comes to an end. “I’m guessing yes, the program will continue,” she said, “but there is no decision yet.”
Before the pandemic, Dannen taught gardening to teens. She hopes Gardens for Good continues. “It’s a nice way to help people from home. I would be happy to do it again.”
Master Gardeners teach others
There are 500 Master Gardeners in Hennepin County alone. As representatives of University of Minnesota Extension, their mission is to use researched-based horticultural knowledge and practices to deliver education outreach and project-based efforts that inspire change and promote healthy people, healthy communities and a healthy planet.
Candidates are screened through an interview and a background check to become an intern. They go through an extensive training course and are required to volunteer 50 hours teaching and delivering information to the public to become certified as a Master Gardener. Courses for 2021 will be taught online.
If you’d like to become a Master Gardener volunteer, go to hennepinmastergardeners.org/become-a-master-gardener/. Applications will be accepted through Oct. 31.
Below: Master Gardener Darielle Dannen inspects a purple Brussels sprout plant she will begin to harvest after the first frost. Gardens for Good co-coordinator Ann Thureen shows the latest brown bags the Master Gardeners filled with produce from their own gardens, with sample contents. By end of September, 1,712 pounds of produce had been donated by Master Gardeners and their contacts. Food recipients also received flowers and decorative items grown in gardens. Here, Ann Thureen showed the size of the average produce bag, before getting a colleague to take the photo on front page, right. (Other photos by Cynthia Sowden)