Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s community kitchen garden in Henrico, Virginia is dedicated to growing healthy produce to erase hunger in its community. Started in 2009, their Kroger Community Kitchen Garden supports the community by providing fresh produce to food pantries and by encouraging visitors to take upon “the role we all play in making the region a better place.”
Kroger provides continuing support to the garden as part of the company’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste initiative. With this support, the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden has donated more than 50,000 pounds of vegetables to its primary partner FeedMore, a non-profit organization providing food to food insecure families.
Staff and volunteers maintain the garden with sustainable and organic gardening methods such as crop rotation and integrated pest management. “Our volunteers include anyone from corporate volunteers to individual families,” says Shane Tippett, Executive Director at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, “and we feel that by modeling sustainable practices, we can teach and inspire our entire community.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Tippett about the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden’s dedication to a healthy community from the ground up.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired the Kroger partnership with the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden for the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden?
Shane Tippett (ST): Kroger has been a great collaborator and partner. As a part of The Kroger Company’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste initiative, Kroger aims to end hunger while eliminating food waste across the company by 2025. By partnering with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Kroger Mid-Atlantic found an opportunity to bring Zero Hunger Zero Waste to life in a local setting. This creative partnership allows Kroger to give back to the community by supplying food pantries like FeedMore and raising awareness of food security issues. Partnering with our Garden is an effective way to reach visitors to one of the most visited paid attractions in Richmond, and one of the nation’s top botanical gardens, with more than 400,000 visitors annually.
FT: What community need within the food system did the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden identify when deciding to grow fresh produce for FeedMore’s Meals on Wheels and Kids Cafe programs?
ST: The Garden’s involvement with food security issues in Central Virginia started with a conversation in 2008 between Frank Robinson–our Garden Executive Director at the time–and Fay Lohr, FeedMore’s then President and CEO. Since the start of our first growing season of the Community Kitchen Garden in 2009, the garden has received support from a number of individuals and organizations like The Community Foundation and Kroger. With this support we expanded the garden by forming a new section between the Conservatory and Massey Greenhouse, adding cold frames to extend the growing season, and planting fruit trees and berry canes to increase variety and yield. Furthermore, we added the Stapleton Tignor Apiary adjacent to the garden, believing bee pollination improves both our gardening and our educational experiences for visitors. The Community Kitchen Garden has contributed to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s success: in 2011, we received the IMLS National Medal, and in 2012, we received the Tricycle Gardens’ Golden Trowel Award for our focus on the community.
While our space–just over 10,000 square feet currently–can only produce a limited amount of food and meets only a fraction of our community’s hunger needs, the quality of the produce is exceptional. Furthermore, our Garden effectively communicates to our guests larger messages related to the food system such as the importance of water-sensitive, sustainable gardening for the health of our environment; the impact of food insecurity on the health of our community; and the role we all play in making the region a better place for ourselves and our neighbors
FT: In what ways does the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden maintain best gardening practices for the environment, gardener, and consumer?
ST: Kroger Community Kitchen Garden uses sustainable and organic practices including companion planting, crop rotation, and integrated pest management. We condition our soil with compost; we fertilize with organics. We repurpose cardboard boxes by placing them under mulched pathways to prevent weeds. We harness the advantages of plant diversity to deter pests. The Garden shows visitors how they can bring sustainable and organic to their own gardens. We use these practices not only for the environment but for our volunteer gardeners and visitors. Our volunteers include anyone from corporate volunteers to individual families, and we feel that by modeling sustainable practices, we can teach and inspire our entire community. Additionally, the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden reaches our gardeners and visitors by offering workforce development, educational experiences, exercise, and a sense of community spirit. Work sessions double as educational lessons, and it’s our goal that volunteers leave our gardens empowered to do more.
FT: How have other organizations such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello contributed to the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden’s reach and mission?
ST: The Garden has used our long-standing relationship with Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to acquire seeds for heirloom vegetables such as radishes, squashes, pumpkins, and greens. Growing heirloom vegetables contributes not only to our production goals but also to our educational mission. Our partnership empowers us to talk to visitors about the benefits of growing time-tested heirloom vegetables, fostering biodiversity, and preserving seeds. Heirloom vegetables are known to taste better and hold more nutritional value. Growing heirloom vegetables with the help of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is a great way to showcase vegetables that may be new to our visitors, even though they have been grown in Virginia for hundreds of years.
FT: How does the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden adapt to the specific needs of the community?
ST: Our initial goal for the garden was to produce more and more food, but we now respond to the needs of our community partners and the environment. For example, we took a lot of squash to FeedMore, but we delivered more than the kitchen needed. Over time the Kroger Community Kitchen Garden horticulturists and gardeners responded more directly to the meal preparation wants and needs of FeedMore. Therefore, we grow less squash but more cherry tomatoes because FeedMore prefers them over tomatoes that require slicing. Our production responds to the needs of the environment as well, as we allow certain areas of the garden to recover from heavy gardening. Over the last decade, our production varied between 3,000 and 12,000 pounds in response to the needs of our community and our environment. We continually work with FeedMore to support their mission and goals over our own goals for expanding production.
When Kroger Community Kitchen Garden produces small amounts of a more diverse crop, or grows a small oversupply, we avoid burdening our partners by expanding our reach. New partners such as LAMBS Basket, a local food pantry assembled by church congregations servicing the residents of Henrico, receive a portion of our produce. With FeedMore only 5 miles away, and LAMBS Basket only three miles away, the Garden provides fresh, locally grown vegetables to fill the needs of our community.
We also try to adapt to the cultural needs of the community. We grow staples that are culturally relevant and recognizable to the populations served such as Asian vegetables or traditional southern crops like okra. Two years ago we added an orchard with apples, plums, pears, peaches, and apricots and fruits including strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. The orchard will continue to provide fresh fruit for our community for years to come with not as much intensive gardening as the vegetables.
FT: How can every person help further your mission in their own gardens?
ST: We encourage home gardeners to pursue sustainable gardening practices, compost, recycle, and share their produce with their neighbors and friends. Home gardeners can also seek out their own partnerships with organizations that can use surplus produce. Most importantly, gardeners can share the message about sustainable and organic farming methods, the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in our diets, and the impact of food insecurity on our communities.
Photo courtesy of Tom Hennessy.