New program looks to teach families how to grow their healthy dinners

By Logan Roddy, contributor

This story was updated March 29 to reflect that the group changed its in-person meeting to May 22 from May 8 so as not to conflict with JMU’s in-person graduation date.

Jen Dufner was a single mom trying to feed her family on a less than desirable salary when she moved to Toms Brook in Shenandoah County three-and-a-half years ago. While trying to find workarounds to make sure her daughter was eating healthy produce, she stumbled upon a seed swap hosted by grassroots non-profit Sustainability Matters. She stuck around afterward, and learned more about gardening. 

She also became a bigger part of a support system of environmental volunteers than she could have ever expected.

Dufner is spearheading a new program with Sustainability Matters in partnership with the Friendly City Food Co-op to target food insecurity for vulnerable members of the community, specifically families with a household income of less than $40,000 a year. 

“This program in particular is very personal for that reason, I have been in those people’s shoes,” Dufner said. “I didn’t know where I was getting the money to buy fruits & vegetables for my kid.”

The program, called Backyard Food Bank: Grow Your Own, aims to work with 20 families through the fall to teach them how to begin gardening in small spaces and is in the process of signing up those families to participate by April 1. The deadline for families and individuals to apply to Backyard Food Bank is April 1. Contact to schedule a Zoom interview.

“It would be a huge impact because there is a large group of people that fall through the cracks,” Dufner said. “And sometimes you’re just short of qualifying for assistance. And not everybody wants to stay on assistance and wants to be able to support their family.”

Dufner is now not only more experienced in gardening than she was when she moved to the Valley, but she said she’s also more confident in her ability to put fresh food on the table. Last year, she planted 96 tomato plants and 65 pepper plants, among others, in her garden.

Kari Souder, who works in marketing and owner services at the food co-op, is also working with Dufner to interview candidates interested in participating. She is the one prospective participants should email to set up an interview. 

While she said they’re flexible about the criteria to enter — including accepting more than 20 families and allowing participants who make over the $40,000 threshold — she added that it’s important they be motivated to learn and commit to the program through September.

“We really just want people to be able to eat,” Souder said. “The ideal person that we want help wants to learn, wants to feed their kids, they don’t just want the free plants. Even if you can afford to eat, you can’t always afford to eat well. And produce is expensive wherever you go.”

Jen Dufner and children work in a garden they use to grow fruits and vegetables for their meals. (Photo provided)

Gardens in buckets and small spaces

The program’s structure will cater to each family’s living and working situation by teaching methods that correspond to how much space and time they can dedicate. There will also be children’s activities and ways to involve them in learning about fruits and vegetables and the growing process.

“Do you have a sunny spot outside or a small patio or even a sidewalk outside that’s not going to be disturbed?” Souder asks. “This is something that can be done in a couple of plastic buckets, or outside with two by three to four feet of space.”

Backyard Food Bank will kick off with an in-person meeting at the co-op on May 22 to determine what approach will work best for each family, whether it be in buckets and containers, a raised bed or a standard in-ground garden. After they’re provided with all the materials required, they’ll continue with biweekly Zoom check-in meetings, as well as a Facebook support group where the new gardeners can seek advice, ask questions or boast about their achievements.

Because the program was dreamt up in the days before COVID, Souder said the biggest challenge has been shifting to virtual aspects.

“To be able to offer the same level of support for people because we want this to work for them and we want them to be empowered enough to be able to do this,” Souder said. “And so how to get the same amount of information to people through a group meeting over the computer where nobody can touch your stuff or actually look at it, and to not have that personal contact too. They’re going to feel supported this way, but it’s not going to be the same.”

‘A hand up, not a handout’

Along with all the gardening materials, dirt, and plants needed to participate, Sustainability Matters and the food co-op will be providing each family with a gardening mentor. Though social distancing prevents them from visiting their homes to provide hands-on guidance, they’ll be able to give valuable insight and advice to help support and motivate them to continue.

“Gardening is not magic,” said Sari Carp, Sustainability Matters’ executive director. “They have to be aware that it’s a lot of hard work. Most of what we know about gardening we learned from other gardeners. And that’s what we hope to do with this program, that people will get direct mentorship throughout the entire first season and potentially beyond.”

The need for funding is another issue that complicates things. Carp said the Backyard Food Bank is a particularly expensive program to run, and so far the organization has raised enough to cover about 10-15% of the organization’s costs for the program.

“For the same amount of money, a traditional food bank can reach exponentially more people than Backyard Food Bank can,” Carp said. “But the way we do this project is as a hand up, not a handout. This is for people who want to learn how to produce food for their own families, who want to pass this down, and to us that is something you can’t put a value on. But funders want to put a value on something.”

Sustainability Matters, like many organizations, has been forced to look to alternative avenues for funding and volunteer work since the pandemic began. Plant swaps, landfill parties and Earth Day celebrations are looking different — but still going strong.

“We thought about waiting, but the problem is that the food insecurity is now. And so we really didn’t want to push off a project that can make such a huge difference in people’s lives another year just because we couldn’t do it absolutely perfectly,” Carp said.

Being guided to green thumbs

Paula Brownlee has been gardening since she first took interest in her grandmother’s vegetable garden when they lived together for a year outside of London during World War II. She founded Sustainability Matters with Sari in 2018 and has been teaching horticulture and gardening at Virginia Tech for 15 years. While teaching her new program, Vegetable Gardening for the Perplexed, virtually, she’s getting ready to guide the families in testing their green thumbs in this pilot program.

“We want every single family to succeed and come out of the other end and want to do more the next year,” said Brownlee, who taught chemistry at schools like Rutgers, Rochester, and Hollins universities. 

With that classroom experience, Brownleet is working with Carp to ensure the Zoom sessions are just as engaging and fun as learning in-person.

“On the other hand, there’s not a lot of competition — I mean you can’t go to the theater or whatnot,” Brownlee said. “We’re getting a lot of appreciative comments for our activities, they seem to really like them. But you have to be willing to learn.”

Carp said they’re meticulously recording every detail of the process so they will have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t so they can build on it for years to come.

“Our education isn’t really one-way,” Carp said. “It’s a process in which we learn from our students, our students learn from us, particularly in gardening education there is so much learned through experience.”

As they continue to screen potential candidates for Backyard Food Bank, Brownlee said there are ample benefits for anyone thinking about taking the course.

“Considering the only moderate amount of hard work you need to put into it, you will have the great benefit of fresh, free vegetables right there that you can pick right by your home, the taste is wonderful, involving your family members in a shared hobby, particularly children,” Brownlee said. “Children love to learn where things come from!”

Dufner agreed that as someone who has experienced the trials of food insecurity firsthand, the opportunity to learn from and work with an organization like Sustainability Matters has given her the ability to reallocate her funds from food to elsewhere.

“Things are going to die, don’t stress about it, and try again,” Dufner said. “It should not be a chore — it should be enjoyable.” 

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