WALPOLE, N.H. — Each year the Cheshire County Conservation District honors an individual, business or organization with the “Cooperator of the Year” award. This is done to celebrate the efforts the recipient has undertaken to steward the natural resources on their land in cooperation with the Conservation District and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year we are happy to announce Community Garden Connections of Antioch University New England as our 2022 Cooperator of the Year.
Community Garden Connections (CGC) builds local capacity to grow food and enhances personal and communal well-being among those most impacted by climate change and other social, economic, and ecological injustices. CGC addresses food insecurity and offers safe places for community members to get outside, learn, and connect through gardening.
The spirit of CGC is about responding to community needs and fostering student’s passions. This spirit has guided them to build and cooperatively maintain 70+ garden beds in partnership with 13 social service agencies in Keene, from the Keene Rec Center, Senior Center, Harper Acres to YMCA, Monadnock Peer Support and Monadnock Developmental Services, to name a few. CGC also offers education and outreach through workshops, educational materials, and one-on-one assistance to community members. Through the establishment and staffing of the Westmoreland Garden and the C&S Workplace Gardens they have donated nearly 23,465 pounds (nearly 12 tons!) of fresh produce to local hunger relief agencies since 2012. They have also created and donated 150 container gardens for members of the community.
CGC is led by a team of Student Coordinators that work alongside Dr. Jean Kayira and Dr. Libby McCann who serve as Faculty Advisors of CGC. Jean and Libby are a driving force behind CGC’s success, and they shared that “it is the joy of building connections and being of service to the students and greater community” that inspire their work.
CGC started in 2011, and Dr. Libby McCann shares that “it’s roots are in years of student work focused on the local food system and food security that laid the foundation for launching CGC.” She guided students on exploring how Antioch could be of service in this arena and meet the needs of the community. They evaluated the University’s connection to the City of Keene’s Master Plan and their focus on climate resilience as well as the Healthy Monadnock Initiative and their focus on public health. In those early years there was a partnership formed between the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) and Antioch to host two AmeriCorps positions focused on food system development. This partnership fostered the creation of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition and the Monadnock Food Co-op.
Dr. Jean Kayira joined the Antioch faculty in 2013. She was attracted to Antioch by the community-based nature of its programs. Jean appreciates how CGC allows students to apply their classroom knowledge to meeting community challenges. This work grounds the students and offers them opportunities to build authentic relationships. The students who lead this work often find it to be a foundational experience supporting them in gaining confidence and skills. Over 70 students have been engaged as staff members of CGC, many of whom have gone on to secure professional roles in food and farming contexts. Examples include graduates who now serve in leadership roles in land trusts, cooperative extension, businesses, city planning, farm-to-school, gleaning organizations, as well as schools, and serve as farm educators, botanical garden educators and so much more.
CGC would not be possible without the support of the Rashti Foundation, Antioch University New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, and the generosity of former students. Volunteers have also been essential to help cultivate food and foster student connections that reach deep into our community.
CGC has been working in cooperation with the CCCD since it’s inception as partners on educational events, creating outdoor classroom space, as well as more recently fostering the creation of the seed and tool library at the Keene Public Library. They have worked with the USDA NRCS at their Westmoreland Garden site from 2019-2021 on the construction of a high tunnel to expand their growing season and offer crop protection. They have also received assistance on creating an efficient irrigation system and investing in mulching to improve soil health.
The future vision of how CGC evolves will continue to be driven by student passions and community involvement as well as be informed by climate resilience planning. They are leaning into their food justice mission and working to create a stronger sense of belonging in our community. Focusing on “gardening to build relationships,” shared Libby and Jean elaborated how it is their shared value to “continue to ask who else in our community can be involved, who else is not participating” to ensure they are continuing to expand how we define community.
We are thankful to call Community Garden Connections our partners and it is with great honor that the Cheshire County Conservation District presents them with the 2022 Cooperator of the Year Award. Congratulations!
The Cheshire County Conservation District celebrated Community Garden Connections of Antioch University New England and our 2022 awardees at our 77th Annual Celebration on Wednesday, September 28th at the Keene Country Club.
Read more about our awardees and CCCD’s programs and accomplishments in our 2022 Annual Report: https://www.
–Cheshire County Conservation District