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North Liberty Community Pantry awarded challenge grant for community garden project

NORTH LIBERTY– A new project in North Liberty will bring growth to the community in a whole new way.
In September, the North Liberty Community Pantry was awarded a $38,850 challenge grant from the Wellmark Foundation in order to develop a community garden. Now, pantry supporters and director Tina DuBois are in the process of raising the required matching funds, which must be pledged by Dec. 15.
The Gardening for Health project, still in the planning stages, will be adjacent to the pantry at 89 N. Jones Blvd., with perennial vegetables and fruits– including asparagus and raspberries, rhubarb and grape vines, and eventually fruit-bearing trees, in addition to annual produce, all of which will be planted, maintained and harvested by volunteers and used to supplement the fresh food choices of pantry users. The garden will include a universal design walkway and patio and some raised beds to make the gardening experience accessible to everyone.
“The main goal is to connect people to the food they are eating,” said DuBois.
People don’t always have that connection, DuBois said, especially children. “They think food comes from the grocery store, or from a box,” she said.
With this grant comes the opportunity for a great deal of education. A “tasting garden” space for children will allow them to pick and sample fresh produce directly from the garden, and learn how the fresh foods factor into healthy, delicious diets.
“It makes such a huge difference if kids are in on the process from the beginning,” said DuBois.
The Gardening for Health grant application was one of 15 projects chosen to receive matching grants, out of 44 submitted to the Wellmark Foundation.
DuBois said the pantry’s board of directors and other supporters have talked for several years about the benefits an on-site garden could provide; even beyond pantry users.
“We really want it to be for the entire community,” said DuBois. “The reality is that no one is eating enough fruits and vegetables. This is a great way to engage the community in learning about the food cycle.”
Calorie for calorie, DuBois noted, it’s more expensive to buy healthy, fresh foods like produce and whole fruits than cheap, processed and packaged foods. However, the latter as a dietary staple creates a nutritional deficit akin to that of hunger.
“Regardless of socioeconomic status, a lot of people are starving for proper nutrition,” said DuBois. She cites a recent report from United Way of Johnson County that states just six percent of the county’s students in grades six and older eat five servings of fruits or vegetables each day.
People are also lacking a positive relationship with their food, she believes. Though Iowa is a largely agricultural state, relatively little food is grown here for human consumption. In fact, according to Feed Iowa First, the state imports more than 85 percent of its food, and one in six of Iowa’s children go to bed hungry each night.
“Society is becoming more urbanized, and losing that connection with where their food comes from. We want to have the food this garden will produce, but the really important part is educating families and getting them involved.”
Involvement has been key in the project already, DuBois said. Assisting in the grant application process and project planning has been Lucy Hershberger, of Forever Green Nursery and Garden Center, and Scott Koepke, of New Pioneer Food Co-op, as well as a Master Gardener intern who will continue to be instrumental in developing the project.
The pantry is often the beneficiary of individual gardeners who have excess produce, but even that is often not enough to feed those who utilize the pantry to make grocery budgets stretch. The pantry currently averages 700 visits per month, up 20 percent compared to last year’s average.
“We will have a variety of plants that will give us a longer growing season,” said DuBois. “Hopefully we will be able to harvest something from April until October.”
The grant award is a great way to enhance and expand an already existing successful program, said Stephanie Perry of the Wellmark Foundation. “The community already supports the North Liberty Pantry as demonstrated by more than 7,700 hours of volunteerism last year. We’re excited about what participants will learn in the teaching garden, the nutrition and food preparation classes and activities that will be offered,” said Perry.
The Foundation provides matching funds to non-profit organizations or public entities to help local communities establish or expand projects that impact health status. “The funding focus of the Foundation is wellness and prevention initiatives that are designed to improve the health of a community, and will result in a lasting footprint where we live, work and play. Projects should demonstrate strong community support, evidence of ongoing financial support, and significant potential for replication,” Perry said.
A two-year project, the Gardening for Health endeavor will eventually be expanded to include other teaching opportunities, such as the nutritional value of fresh, local foods; how to can, freeze or preserve foods for later use; how to properly store and prepare fresh fruits and produce, how to use more vegetables in everyday meals; or how to create a container garden and raise vegetables in limited spaces. The North Liberty Unity Coalition’s free lunch program this summer offered a session on container gardening to encourage people to try it on their own.
“We want to continue that,” said DuBois. “Almost anybody can learn how to fill a bucket with soil and grow tomatoes, just about anywhere.”
The comprehensive enterprise will bring together experienced gardeners and cooks who can share their expertise with novices who wish to learn. Educational events will include formal seminars taught by professionals, as well as hands-on work in the garden. The effort will require many regular volunteers, as well as a part-time staff person to coordinate them, the education activities and the upcoming fundraising events that will get the garden into the ground. So far, $10,000 has been raised toward the $38,850 goal, through private donations and a gift from American Family Insurance.
An informational meeting titled “Can You Dig It?” has been scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 21, from 6:30 until 7:30 p.m. at the North Liberty Community Center. A November fundraising event with a fall theme will be held Nov. 23 from 1 until 3 p.m. at the pantry. Donations of pumpkins will be welcome for the event, DuBois said.
The entire community is encouraged to become part of this project that supports the pantry’s mission.
“My goal is to have a beautiful space that people can’t resist,” said DuBois. “This is a great opportunity for neighbors to help neighbors and provide much-needed healthier food. Eating healthy shouldn’t be determined by your income.”
For more information, call 319-626-2711, email nlpantry@gmail.com, visit the pantry website at www.northlibertycommunitypantry.org or find it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/northlibertycommunitypantry.