Our Story: Gardening for Food Pantries

September 2016

Start with an idea: grow fresh produce for donation to Iowa food pantries.

As they planned for the 2016 growing season, Christine Hradek, an ISU Extension and Outreach human sciences specialist, and Susan DeBlieck, Master Gardener program assistant, combined their connections and resources into a powerful partnership between Iowa State University and local food pantries throughout the state. Their recipe created an entrée for a greater goal: reducing food insecurity in Iowa.

Food insecurity is an issue in Iowa

People who are food insecure don’t have access to enough food to make up a healthy diet, Hradek said.

“Food insecurity is a surprisingly difficult problem in Iowa, considering how prosperous much of our state is. About one in eight Iowans is food insecure at some point in any given year. That’s about 12 percent of the population of the state of Iowa, and in some communities it is even a little bit higher,” she said.

Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables is an important habit for a healthy diet, Hradek noted, “yet for many Iowans who are food insecure, fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach. Either they cost too much or they’re not available in many locations in their community. Working more fruits and vegetables into the food pantry environment through a project like this allows families to access fresh fruits and vegetables who may not otherwise be able to afford them.”

SNAP-Ed, Master Gardeners, ISU Research and Demonstration Farms work together

Hradek coordinates Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, a USDA program known as SNAP-Ed, for ISU Extension and Outreach. The program offers education on nutrition, cooking and food budget management to Iowans with low income. Iowa State University receives the funds to do SNAP-Ed work through the Iowa Department of Human Services.

DeBlieck facilitates the efforts of 2,400 volunteers who have been trained through ISU Extension and Outreach’s Master Gardener program. Master Gardeners share their gardening knowledge and skill as they give back to their communities.

To this partnership Hradek brought SNAP-Ed funding and connections to Iowa’s emergency food system. DeBlieck brought the Master Gardener volunteer force. The ISU Research and Demonstration farms supplied the model gardens, which are providing community education and outreach as well as fresh produce for donation to Iowans in need.

Donation gardens are different

“From the beginning you’ve got the end recipient in mind as you plan a donation garden,” Hradek explained. She contacted food pantries to find out what kinds of produce their clients wanted. The pantries helped the gardeners “choose what should be planted, so that the items that are harvested are really what the pantry can use, what the clients enjoy, what they are able to store and distribute,” she said.

“One of our jobs in SNAP Education is to make healthy choices easier for Iowans who are experiencing poverty,” Hradek said. “This project allowed us to make use of a great resource, the Master Gardeners, to grow produce for the purpose of donating to food pantries, which would allow those families to access fruits and vegetables and really carry out what they’ve learned in nutrition education.”

Initially Master Gardeners helped research and demonstration farm staff plant and weed the donation gardens, DeBlieck said. As the growing season has progressed, they have been harvesting and weighing the produce and delivering it to local food pantries.

“Food pantries aren’t open every day of the week and they also might not have storage. So it’s really helpful that we’ve got Master Gardener volunteers who are helping to make sure that the produce is being harvested at a time when it can be brought to a food pantry and served directly to customers fresh,” DeBlieck said.

“Home demonstration gardens have been located at seven Iowa State University research farms. These home demonstration gardens were started as a way of showing homeowners what could be grown in their yard,” DeBlieck said.

“With this added element of donating to food pantries, we’re hoping that we inspire more people to donate to their local food banks and show that, really, if they only plant a couple extra zucchini plants, they could be harvesting pounds of food … for people in need,” DeBlieck said.

Hradek added, “It has been fantastic to see the energy that Master Gardeners have for helping their neighbors who can benefit from fruits and vegetables that they grow, and the excitement that it’s generated around the state for donation gardening and neighbors helping neighbors in Iowa.”

DeBlieck agreed, noting that Master Gardeners are using their gardening skills to help their community and reduce food insecurity.

“What better way to be a volunteer in your community than to become a Master Gardener and grow food for your community,” DeBlieck said.


Christine Haradek, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, 515-294-3554, hradek@iastate.edu

Susan DeBlieck, Extension Master Gardener Program, 515-294-6764, deblieck@iastate.edu

Writer: Laura Sternweis, Advancement, 515-294-0775, lsternwe@iastate.edu