Local Nonprofit Digs In to Help Those with Food Insecurity

In January 2017, Chris Harms founded Giving Gardens, a nonprofit organization helping White Bear Lake-area residents grow produce for donation to local food shelves. The food donation is just one objective, though: The other mission is creating awareness of local food insecurity as well as the barriers that many in the community face in getting fresh produce.

To achieve these goals, Harms initially found three local lumberyards—J.L. Schweiters, Universal Forestry Products and Structural Wood Corporation—that donated the wood to build 50 raised beds in residents’ yards. Harms and other volunteers delivered the lumber for the 16-inch-deep, 4-by-8-foot boxes, which they filled with half-price nutrient-enriched topsoil from Rehbein’s Black Dirt in Hugo. Funds raised via GoFundMe paid for the plants and seeds at a discount from Hugo Feed Mill. “We’re growing from the earth of our community for those who are in our community,” Harms says. “It doesn’t get more organic than that.”

Giving Gardens aimed to remove all barriers for volunteers to grow gardens. The organization provided the raised bed structure, the soil, the seeds and started plants—everything necessary to create a garden—for free to participants, who then donate at least 51 percent of their total yield to food shelves. That pilot group of 50 grew to 105 when they put out 55 more beds in October 2017, and there are 45 more people on the waiting list. Harms expects to have a total of 200 garden beds ready to go this spring.

The idea for Giving Gardens sprouted from a book. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berub, details the rise of suburban poverty in the last 30 years—particularly the sharp increase after the 2007 recession. “I think most people think about poverty as a problem in the urban core, but what most people don’t realize is that poverty has grown faster in the suburbs. The rate of increase in poverty has almost doubled between 2000 and 2010,” Harms explains. “So that book started me thinking of suburban poverty and how well it’s camouflaged.”

Talking about this book, Harms and his friend, Rolf Lowenberg-Deboer, hit upon fighting poverty-induced food insecurity with gardening. “Rolf is actually the gardener,” Harms says. “I’m the one who’s learning. When you go to his house, first he’ll shake your hand, and then he’ll want to show you his garden.” With Lowenberg-Deboer as Harms’ gardening advisor, the idea for Giving Gardens began to germinate. “Access to healthy food is key,” Lowenberg-Deboer says. “With neighbors coming together, this movement is literally building a healthier community.”

Some of the neighbors receiving the produce aren’t whom you might expect. Lynn Amon, elder resource specialist at the White Bear Lake Senior Program, says the largest growing group of hungry people is seniors, with 15 percent of adults 60 and older facing the threat of hunger. Fixed incomes and barriers like mobility problems or applications to programs, even when people are eligible, can keep seniors from getting the healthful food they need.  

“Because so many people come every week for activities, they can grab just a little bag of tomatoes, but then they’ll get it every week,” Amon says. She also says seniors often feel like they’re taking away from families who need fresh produce more than they do, and having it available at this program alleviates that concern. A sign explains community members grow the produce locally for them, and the veggies take on whole different meaning. “It makes me want to cry,” Amon says. “It made them feel like they’re in a community that supports them and would grow food with them in mind. There was an idealism when [Giving Gardens] started, and the recipients definitely felt that.”

Between the senior program and the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf, which helps about 600 families a month, Giving Gardens donated more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2017. “We are honored to partner with Chris Harms and the Giving Gardens program,” White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf executive director Andréa Kish-Bailey says. “It’s been a great experience to have gardeners stop by the food shelf to donate their harvest. Our partnership with Giving Gardens helps increase awareness of the growing need and provides an avenue for community members to support their neighbors.”

Besides individual home gardens, the growers in 2017 included a few community locations. Harms’ church, St. John in the Wilderness, which shares a parking lot with the White Bear Lake Library, put in two raised beds Harms harvested early Monday mornings before work, leaving a cooler for a volunteer to pick up. Indulge Salon now has a garden onsite, and more public gardens will be a focus for 2018.

Giving Gardens receives some fiscal sponsorship from the Greater White Bear Lake Community Foundation and continues to raise funds throughout the year. Donations and volunteers are always welcome.