Master Gardener volunteers supplying Ohio food pantries

Master Gardener Volunteers from across Ohio grew nearly 80,000 pounds of produce in 2020 statewide and donated it all to 101 food pantries in cities and towns across the state.

The Master Gardener Volunteer program is a U.S.- and Canada-wide effort that in Ohio is run by Ohio State University Extension, in the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

The produce grown included fruits, vegetables, and herbs and was equivalent to 65,200 meals, according to Pam Bennett, state master gardener volunteer program director and horticulture educator with OSU Extension.

Although Master Gardener Volunteers have grown and donated food through this program for 20 years, growers ramped up their production efforts to help deal with the growing issue of food insecurity issues faced by individuals and families in 2020 statewide, said Mike Hogan, an OSU Extension educator who facilitates the program in Franklin County.

That’s significant, considering the rising unemployment and other financial hardships people have faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused food banks to have increased demand for food but receive fewer food donations from grocery stores, according to research from Zoë Plakias, a CFAES assistant professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics.

Although grocery stores donate their excess products to food banks, if stores have difficulty keeping their shelves stocked, there can be less available for donation, she said.

In July, nearly 20% of households surveyed nationally said they had children in the home who were not eating enough sometime or often in the past week because they could not afford food. A separate national survey showed that 9.7% of those who responded said they couldn’t afford to buy enough food in the past week.

Due to food insecurity issues, which were worsened by the pandemic, Franklin County Master Gardener Volunteers ramped up production of fresh fruits and vegetables in 29 garden projects throughout Franklin County, including at CFAES’ Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory on Ohio State’s Columbus campus, Hogan said.

“In Franklin County alone, Master Gardener Volunteers produced and donated 29,862 pounds of produce for food-insecure families,” he said. “This amounts to nearly 15 tons of food and was an 8,437-pound increase from food produced for donations in 2019.

“This food was donated to 23 food pantries in Franklin County and to individual families and youth in several neighborhoods.”

Ohio’s Master Gardener Volunteer program has more than 3,500 Master Gardener Volunteers in 62 counties statewide who take 50 hours of horticultural training through OSU Extension and in return agree to give 50 hours of service to their county Extension program. Volunteers can be recertified each year with an additional 10 hours of continuing education and a minimum of 20 hours of service, Bennett said.

Some of the service they provide includes staffing phone helplines, speaking at public events, taking photos, giving tours, propagating plants, maintaining gardens, and more, all depending on their interests.

The program has four primary initiatives:

  • Backyard gardening and local foods includes working with community gardens.
  • Integrated pest management includes teaching people best gardening practices and strategies to reduce the use of pesticides.
  • Invasive species includes encouraging people to identify, report, and be on the lookout for spotted lanternfly, Asian longhorned beetle, and other invasive species.
  • Environmental horticulture focuses on stormwater management, how to create rain gardens, and best management practices for backyard gardening.

The produce production for the food donations in 2020 started in March with the early spring crops, while other crops were planted in May after Master Gardener Volunteers received an exemption for this work since it occurred during the statewide stay-at-home orders, Bennett said.

“We were granted exemptions because food security fell under the governor’s guidelines as essential work,” she said. “A few counties still had gardening plots in late December, with cool-season crops such as carrots, lettuce, and other greens.

“All produce grown was given to local food banks and soup kitchens in the county it was produced in immediately after it was harvested,” Bennett said. “Additionally, some of the produce was given directly to families and youth who live in neighborhoods around the community gardens.” 

The food donation program began during the 2008 recession, Hogan said.

“As a result of the strained economy during that time and the growth of the local food movement, the need for donations grew,” he said. “The need significantly increased this year due to the pandemic.”

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