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Giving Gardens

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Women walking in gardens

Giving gardens, a growing phenomenon, provide wellness for corporate employees, food for those in need — with far-reaching ripple effects.

I took a deep breath, surveyed the room, and relaxed. It was a cold, icy February Thursday in Minneapolis, and I waited as 30-plus people trickled in for the City of Minneapolis’s Giving Garden Workshop. I kept my knee-length coat zipped and found it difficult to imagine gardens would ever exist outside again: All I could see out of the window-lined room was white and ice covering every outdoor surface.

Those presenting about their giving gardens reassured me that the gardens would indeed begin to grow and bloom again. As people from a variety of organizations shared their experiences, I felt a piece of my soul revived.

Susan Schuster of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota explained how their corporate company was the first (that they know of) in the Minneapolis area to begin a giving garden. In 2007, three employees were walking along paths amid a massive lawn and had the thought: “What if we used this space as a garden?”

They requested permission to create a “Community Giving Garden” by digging up a section of the lawn at headquarters.

As the garden grew, they recruited volunteers within the company to help tend it; they then donated the harvest to a local food shelf. Little did they know, it would be a catalyst for more than 15 giving gardens in the Twin Cities.

Once such garden is at Thrivent Financial. In 2013, the organization built a straw-bale garden covering two spots in a parking lot. Despite having little gardening experience, 43 volunteers took to tending the plants. Their first year was not without setbacks: Storms and rain blew bales over, and ruined structures. They kept at it, though, taking notes, and adjusting strategies.

At the end of the season they donated their fresh food to House of Charity. This year they plan to expand their straw-bale garden, applying the lessons they learned from year one.

The Midway YMCA in St. Paul set out last year with 50 garden-in-the-boxes, which were donated by the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. The program’s curriculum included preschoolers to 12-year-olds: They took garden lessons, and learned how to plant, water, weed, and pick food. They also learned to cook recipes with the food they grew.

Producing around 500 pounds of food in its first year, the Midway Y giving garden is a great example of how a common goal can create community, and of how instilling valuable knowledge about food and health can transform the next generation: These children are learning invaluable skills about self-sustenance — something they can take home to share with their families.

Retail Construction services also participates in giving gardens. They creatively use old syrup barrels from Coca-Cola for rain barrels, while also raising bees, composting, and growing potatoes.

To discover more organizations in the Twin Cities Corporate Giving Network, see Healthy Eating Minnesota Network.

Other organizations that were at the workshop included Gardening Matters, Local Food Resource Hubs Network, Hennepin County Master Gardeners, Minnesota State Horticultural Society, Minnesota Project, Minnesota FoodShare, and the Minneapolis Healthy Food Shelf Network.

Gardening is not a new concept, and yet it’s something that is re-emerging as consumers’ desires for real food trump that of processed. Some schools are even including gardening, harvesting, and cooking in their curriculum, along with other wellness programs like meditation and yoga.

Schools such as the Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., and the Khabele School in Austin, Texas have seen  positive improvements on test scores, behavior, and family eating habits. In Growing Healthy Kids Experience Life goes in depth with each of these schools:

“The engaging curriculum has had a ripple effect on families, as well. Gisela Alcantar, who has for children at AGC, says her kids practice the school’s earth-friendly habits at home, leading the family to recycle more and eat more organic foods. It appears that educating healthy kids helps create healthy adults — even if they don’t attend the school themselves.”

“My kids look at food differently now,” says Griselda Cooney, whose two children attended MLK when they were younger. “We’ll go out and buy a sandwich and my teenager will be like, it tastes really weird; it’s not fresh. We don’t do processed food anymore, and they don’t crave Cheetos.” Cooney’s kids have moved on to high school, and she is now employed by ESY as the Family Class Coordinator at MLK.”

“In their wellness class, kids discuss study skills and personal organization, as well as tools for healthy living. These wellness lessons are embedded in all of the curriculum. Every class starts with “centering,” a short meditative practice that promotes mindful breathing and compassion. And each ends with a debriefing, when students report to the teacher what they learned, whether they were able to focus, what they think they contributed and what they took away.”

Giving gardens, wellness classes, and cooking in schools may all seem like idealistic endeavors, but the reality is people, schools and kids are doing this — and thriving.

Inspired to start a garden of your own? See “The Kitchen Garden” by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl for quick tips and recipes.

is Experience Life's digital content specialist.

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