INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sharrona Moore makes a promise every year: to donate half of what her garden grows.
But it’s not really her garden, it’s the community’s garden.
Moore is the founder and main steward of the Lawrence Community Garden. And much of the produce she grows on its seven acres goes to food pantries and meal services for senior citizens. Some is sold at a local farmers market and a stand at the site.
Many in the neighborhood — an area known as a food desert — rely on the Far Eastside garden for fresh fruits and vegetables, Moore said.
This year, however, she won’t have as much.
In a time when the coronavirus pandemic has caused grocery store shortages, exposed the vulnerability of the nation’s food system, and sent the food insecure population across the country skyrocketing — the importance of community gardens and local food sources has become all the more apparent, Moore said.
But they’ve been touched by the pandemic, too. Many of central Indiana’s community gardens have been able to plant only a fraction of their acreage, leaving their neighbors potentially without fresh, healthy food.
The Lawrence Community Garden, for example, was able to plant only one quarter of its seven acres. “We’re behind the curve,” Moore said, “but we’re still trying to push through.”
Just when Moore would normally begin to prepare her fields at the end of March, Indianapolis’ stay-at-home order took effect. In the same way nearby residents rely on Lawrence Community Gardens for their produce, Moore relies on volunteers to be able to get everything planted.
The garden usually has a big day of service in the spring with community partners such Jack’s Donuts, the Chamber of Commerce, Lowe’s and others, she said.
But they weren’t able to do that this year, with businesses closed and residents required to stay home. Such limitations also prevented them from being able to have open calls for volunteers.
“That’s a big deal for us because that’s how we get our spring crops for summer in the ground,” Moore said.
They’ve been able to plant lettuce, leeks and Swiss chard thus far, as well as some tomatoes, peppers and summer squash. But not nearly as much as usual.
Flanner Farm — the community garden through the near northwest’s Flanner House — has experienced the same problem. Unable to get volunteers, the farm just began planting its nearly two acres in May, which is a bit behind, food justice director Sibeko Jywanza said.
They also have only about one-third of it planted, he added, with vegetables such as kale, collard greens and green tomatoes. Though Central Indiana’s planting season traditionally lasts into the beginning of June, Jywanza said he is still going to keep planting — knowing the community needs it.
“We don’t mind pushing to plant as much as we can,” he said. Still, Jywanza added they don’t want to create more work than they will be able to handle, knowing they likely still won’t have many volunteers come harvest time.
“It’s really one of those things of asking what does the community need and how can we provide for that,” Jywanza said.
The community needs a lot right now, he said. The food grown at Flanner Farm goes to supply Cleo’s Bodega, a little grocery store and cafe that opened one year ago in the food desert that is the Near Northwest side.
But the Bodega had to close down early in the pandemic. Grocery stores were considered essential and allowed to stay open, but Cleo’s didn’t have any food. They had donated it all.
Residents in the area, particularly those with children, were receiving less food assistance with the schools being closed, Jywanza said. So Flanner House worked with area schools to bag all its food and get it out to families. They also would provide bags to seniors who came to the store in search of food.
They ultimately donated more than $7,000-worth of inventory, according to Jywanza, and passed out several hundred bags of food in just a few weeks.
“During this pandemic, we understand people rely on different sources to eat when they don’t have a car or are elderly or disabled,” he said. “It’s not easy to get fresh food, especially during a time like this.”
Moore donates her food to a few food pantries on the Far Eastside in the Lawrence area, including the Cupboard and the Sharing Place.
Karen Alyea volunteers at the Sharing Place, located not far off Pendleton Pike. The second Saturday of every month is usually the day the pantry hands out fresh produce.
“But we have nothing to hand out,” Alyea said.
“There is a need out there and we are seeing more people come through and for many this is their first time ever having to go to a food pantry and they don’t know what to expect,” she added. “It’s hard on people and it really is hard to not be able to hand out fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Without that, she worries families will snack on junk food instead.
Alyea also volunteers at her church’s small garden. A mere 600 square feet, it’s not much, but everything she and a handful of other volunteers grow at the Gateway Community Church Garden goes to Sharing Place.
Given the garden’s size, they haven’t had an issue with volunteers. In fact, they’ve planted more than usual this year. In the past, Gateway has donated about 400 lbs. of food to the pantry — “But we’re going for 600 this year.”
“We are trying to give more this year,” Alyea said, “and there’s certainly a need for it.”
The Gateway Church volunteers are being strategic about their planting, too. They spoke with Sharing Place Director Phil May about what they need and what people would like to help guide their planting. The answer, sturdy vegetables such as cucumber, green beans, squash, peppers and onions.
Brandywine Creek Farm in Hancock County is taking a similar approach — but on a very different scale. Brandywine is a large-scale produce grower with 77 acres. It used to be a for-profit farm that nearly five years ago turned it into an organization that donates produce to feed the food insecure throughout Central Indiana.
But this year has been the hardest yet.
The company they get their seeds from was running at limited capacity with the pandemic. Brandywine founder Jonathan Lawler said they got their seeds so late that they went straight from the UPS box into the machine to go out on the field.
Brandywine also partners with many community gardens in Indianapolis, such as Flanner Farm, who have been asking for extra help as they are short on volunteers. More and more people and organizations also continue to reach out in need of food, Lawler said.
In the midst of all this, their funding has plummeted. Numerous businesses and companies that have helped subsidize Brandywine’s efforts in the past have cut back on their funding this year because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Moore said that Lawrence Community Garden has experienced similar cuts from funders — but the community needs it now more than ever, she added.
Lawler agreed: “We are operating on the smallest budget we ever have and growing more produce this year than we ever have before. It’s scary right now.” Brandywine hopes to be able to donate more than 800,000 pounds of food this year.
Before the pandemic began, food insecurity across the United States was at its lowest point since before the Great Recession, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization. But the coronavirus pandemic is expected to reverse those improvements and put millions more people newly at risk, Feeding America said.
There are more than 200,000 Indianapolis residents with low food access and living in low-income areas, according to a 2018 study by IUPUI’s Polis Center. According to data from Feeding America, about 15% of Marion County’s population was considered food insecure.
The largest food deserts are located on the city’s near northwest and northeast areas, southwest and southeast areas and the Far Eastside, the Polis Center study found. Not surprisingly, those are the areas where community gardens have taken root.
“This is something a lot of communities deal with on a daily basis,” Jywanza from Flanner Farm said. “They aren’t in a pandemic, they are in their normal lives.”
But with the coronavirus pandemic, the number of food insecure people in Marion County is projected to rise to 20% this year, a Feeding America analysis found.
The pandemic has also exposed the fragility of the nation’s food system, said Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue University. Closures at processing plants and runs at grocery stores left many in search of food.
“That’s why it’s more important than ever right now that we continue our work,” said Moore at Lawrence Community Garden. “Even if we don’t have food to sell, we will have some food to donate.”
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of reliable food sources, Jywanza said. For many communities, he said, that’s local — as the pandemic has disrupted national distribution systems. He hopes this situation will foster further support for the creating, sustaining and growing community gardens.
“Farms within our community in areas where there aren’t grocery stores, they need a lot of help,” Jywanza said. “If they go away and it isn’t easy for people to get food, those communities will be hurting.”
“But it’s nice to know the community can still get food on its own when people are growing it,” he said, “and the neighborhood has a system to support and rely on itself.”
Source: The Indianapolis Star