The GardenWorks Project is a volunteer grassroots organization located in the Dupage and Kane counties in Illinois. In partnership with other local nonprofits, GardenWorks provides vegetable gardens and education to community members lacking adequate access to food and nutrition. Through their efforts, GardenWorks strives also to promote “self-sufficiency, pride, and good stewardship of the Earth.” Food Tank recently spoke with the Founder of GardenWorks Project, Tina Koral, to learn more.
As founder of the GardenWorks Project, what initially inspired you to become a part of the sustainability movement? How did that drive you to create GardenWorks?
I’m a landscape designer, and I specialize in ecologically beneficial landscapes, so I’ve been involved in the sustainability movement for a few years. The GardenWorks Project was born after brainstorming volunteer opportunities with my husband. We were looking for a volunteer project that our two kids (then one and four years old) could participate in with us. These kinds of projects are tough to find! And also, as a family, we wanted to help other families with food, the most basic of human needs. We combined my passion for plants and growing organic food, his interest in carpentry, and the desire to help our neighbors in need, and this is what we came up with.
What has GardenWorks accomplished so far?
We have built 14 vegetable gardens at the homes of families who are in need of food assistance and utilize our local food pantries. Not only do these families need help obtaining food for their families, they also want to learn how to grow it themselves. We think that about 63 people are affected by a GardenWorks Project garden; that is, 63 people live in homes where we have built gardens. Half of those people are kids. We have taught these families home vegetable gardening skills that they can utilize to feed their families for the rest of their lives. We also estimate that 200 families received fresh, organic vegetables that were grown by GardenWorks Project volunteers in our community garden and donated to a nearby food pantry.
We also feel that we have begun to establish a network of skilled gardeners who are dedicated to the cause of eliminating hunger in our community, who volunteer to build these gardens and welcome our new gardeners into the fold. Our volunteers are truly passionate about growing organic food at home, and it’s so exciting to see our families absorb that gardening passion.
You say on your website that the GardenWorks Project promotes pride to the residential communities where they are implemented. What changes have you noticed amongst the individual volunteers and participants that have been involved? Do you notice any broader changes in the community at large?
The sense of pride that we are talking about on the website comes from the project participants who receive a garden from us. While items from the food pantry are essential to lot of our participants, this is different. We are teaching food-insecure families how to grow what will become meals on the table. There is a sense of pride and self-sufficiency that is likely not experienced at the food pantry. Also, our new gardeners are often quite nervous when they first receive their gardens. They ask a lot of questions about how to care for it – they don’t want to fail. Talking with them at the end of the season, you can feel their confidence. You can see the pride in their faces when they show you their tomato plants, taller than any of us and weighed down with fruit.
The GardenWorks website mentions that you provide gardening coaches to families to help them learn how to grow their own food. How do you find the coaches, and what kind of qualifications do they have?
Our garden coaches learn about the project via our website, or they are matched with a family during our spring volunteer meeting. Our garden coaches range from professional landscapers that I’ve met through my business, master gardeners, and home vegetable gardeners. The only qualifications that we require is that they have some experience in vegetable gardening, but more importantly, that they are dedicated to the cause. Our coaches genuinely want to share their knowledge and get these families growing, and providing healthy, organic meals for their families.
What do you think the are biggest challenges confronting urban agriculture in the U.S. today? What difficulties have you encountered with running your organization, personally?
I believe that one of the biggest challenges in urban gardening today is the quality of our soils. We have taken so much from our soil, poisoned it with life-killing chemicals, scraped it of nutrient-rich topsoil, and completely taken it for granted. We have experienced this directly with our community garden space. A community park district donated the space to us, and we are extremely grateful for that, but the soil is tilled annually, lacking soil structure, is very compacted and devoid of life. There are no worms in that soil and very little organic matter. As a result, we have a terrible weed problem (tilling brings the weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate), plant growth is stunted due to the compaction, and the soil holds very little water. All of these problems necessitate great amounts of human efforts to break through that compacted soil to plant the plants, and hours of weeding and watering. As a society, we need to respect our soils more and make procedural changes to how we care for and replenish it.
What is your vision for the future of GardenWorks? What about for the future of food security and sustainability in the U.S. as a whole?
Our dream is to provide a garden to anyone who wants to grow their own food, but currently don’t have the means. We also want to encourage the community at large to grow food at home, organically, and donate the surplus to food pantries. We believe everyone deserves fresh, organic produce, and we believe that everyone should have a home vegetable garden. We can change the food system in our country by taking it into our own hands.
Finally, how can people in your area get involved with Garden Works? What would you suggest to people in other communities do to get involved in urban agriculture projects in their hometowns?
People in DuPage and Kane Counties can get involved with The GardenWorks Project by visiting our website and taking a look at our volunteer opportunities. We have projects for people who are more interested in the administrative side, and gardening activities for folks who want to be hands-on. People who believe in our mission of reducing hunger with home vegetable gardens, and want to see us expand to help more families, can donate via our website, or through our upcoming Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign in the month of January, 2014. Interested folks can follow us on Facebook to learn about volunteer opportunities.
My suggestions to those interested in making a change to their local food systems is to, first, believe that you CAN make a change. You can do more than you think. Get out of your comfort zone and try something that your community has not seen before. My family built four gardens that first year. It wasn’t much, but with each passing season, the project grows and we help more people. If folks want to replicate The GardenWorks Project in their home town, we’d be happy to offer advice!