The Community Garden is a service-learning and leadership opportunity at Wabash Valley College that has been working for 3 years to provide fresh produce to theWADI food pantry. Jennifer Stroughmatt began the Garden after recognizing a need in our area for access to fresh fruits and vegetables for those in need. Jennifer worked for the University of Illinois Extension Office from 2007 to 2011, communicating the need to spend food stamp allocations on fresh produce for the health benefits these foods offer. She learned first-hand what some of the issues were that encouraged processed foods over fresh. One of the main issues is a limited allocation of funds. If individuals spend their food stamp allowance on something that might perish and/or that their family might not eat, they have wasted their food stamp allocation. Working with both families in local agencies and children in the schools, the crux of the issue was clear; parents were having a difficult time justifying the purchase of foods that might go to waste, and encouraging kids to eat them did not change the availability of fresh foods at home. Simply talking about the health benefits was not enough to change behavior. After beginning her work at WVC, she and Dr. Fowler, President of the College, began to discuss a student-led garden program.
The College, as a learning community, has been the perfect environment to begin the Community Garden. The students are highly devoted to making the Garden a success and recognize the opportunity to build themselves as leaders. Jacey Schwarlose, a Spring graduate who has been in the class every semester as elective credit, helped write the class mantra, “Feed the people!” She says, “This class has helped me develop leadership skills like managing work flow, planning and organizing, increasing the motivation of others, and seeing things from a ‘big picture’ perspective. We work really hard out here, but the reward is knowing that we are giving people a smile on their faces when they get fresh foods from the pantry.”
Each year, the Garden students have taken on developing a little more area to try to grow new vegetables and fruits. In the past, they have been very successful at cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, lettuce, watermelon, and now we have a new strawberry bed that was donated by a community member. This year, they are excited to be awarded a Mini-Grant from Walmart in Princeton to help make a dream of expansion for the Garden a possibility! However, more funding is needed to make the expansion project complete. The group is looking to increase the production area by approximately 50% for the Spring with hopes of additional expansion in future classes over summer and fall.
“This is such a dream for me. It was a struggle some days to believe that I was really having an impact when I was working to encourage families to make healthy food choices. Now, with the Community Garden, I know that we are making an impact for those who might like fresh foods or might like to try new things but lack the budget to afford them,” Jennifer says.
Debbie Meyer, County Manager at the WADI Rural Resource Center, shares her support for what the Garden is doing. “The food pantry serves nearly 200 people per month, and rarely does the food pantry get fresh fruits and vegetables, except what the College is providing. Many of the people can no longer garden or afford to purchase these items. We appreciate all the College is doing for the community and are happy to be a part of it.”
The Garden has had marvelous support from the community through donations of material goods and funds. Current sponsors include Wabash General Hospital, Rural King, Kieffer Lumber, and the MCHS Greenhouse, as well as El Mexicano Restaurant in Fairfield. If you are interested in helping, please contact Jennifer Stroughmatt at the College, 618-263-5013.