UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hunger is a growing crisis in every county in Pennsylvania — 1.4 million people struggle with hunger, including almost 400,000 children. This translates to 1 in 9 adults and 1 in 7 children who are unsure of how they might get their next meal.
A six-week course offered by Penn State Extension’s Master Gardeners — “Seed to Supper” — is aimed at reducing those statistics by teaching new gardeners how to successfully grow a portion of their food on a limited budget. Classes are underway in 13 counties, with more locations to follow as interest in the program grows.
“Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods,” said Lori Voll-Wallace, Master Gardener area coordinator. “Charitable programs are not always able to fully support those struggling with hunger. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the problem, creating home isolation and limited access to nutritious food.”
Downstream effects of food insecurity may include health consequences such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Children struggling to get enough to eat are more likely to have academic and social problems, noted Voll-Wallace.
“Seed to Supper” — initially launched by the Oregon Food Bank and Oregon State Extension Master Gardener Program — is a collaboration with community-based hunger-relief agencies and gardening programs that provides income-eligible families with hands-on lessons on how to grow fresh produce while also imparting knowledge on nutrition and food literacy.
In surveys of the Oregon participants, almost all revealed that they continued to have a garden upon completion of the program, 92% reported reducing their food spending because of their garden, and 80% said they were eating more vegetables. “We anticipate equally meaningful outcomes in our program,” said Voll-Wallace.
Lessons, seeds and gardening supplies are provided to participants at no charge, thanks to community support. Some counties also have received program funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
In 2019, the first “Seed to Supper” program was launched in Pennsylvania, hosted by the Chester County Food Bank and the county’s Master Gardeners. Based on its success, Penn State Extension Master Gardeners wanted to expand the program statewide in 2020, but COVID-19 thwarted their plans.
However, the Master Gardeners in Butler County, in collaboration with nonprofit Community Partnership Inc., forged ahead with a virtual program — graduating a handful of grateful participants — according to Diane Dallos, Master Gardener coordinator in Butler County.
This year, they are offering both virtual and in-person classes, keeping COVID safety protocols top of mind for those who choose the latter option, she said.
“In Butler County, ‘Seed to Supper’ has become one piece of a larger solution to address food security,” said Dallos, a fifth-generation farmer. “As a facilitator, it is so rewarding to see people recognize the value of fresh produce and their excitement about using the vegetables they have grown in their meal planning.”
She added that in addition to equipping people with basic knowledge and understanding of gardening, program instructors are espousing the rewards of “trying something new, asking for help when needed and realizing that it’s okay to fail.”
Dallos’ partner in the program, Community Partnership Manager Sandra Curry, said hunger in certain parts of the county is a long-standing issue, and COVID-19 exacerbated the problem.
“Our sister company runs a food pantry that serves almost 6,000 people a month through a network of 30 food pantries,” Curry said. “During the height of the pandemic, we served about 14,000 people through emergency food distributions. Because a lot of our work revolves around agricultural development, ‘Seed to Supper’ seemed to be a good marriage between our food security and agricultural work.”
Voll-Wallace noted that a fundraising campaign is underway to help supply the coursebooks needed for the program. For every $10 donated, the Master Gardeners can provide one coursebook. For more information, visit https://give.communityfunded.
More information about “Seed to Supper” can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/
–Amy Duke, Penn State University