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‘Resilient food systems’: Carroll County group looks to connect gardeners with food banks

A Carroll County group wants to gather modest-sized gardens together to create a big effect on the supply of fresh produce for food pantries.

Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors is a new effort by a group of gardeners and people passionate about solving food insecurity. They’re working to gather home gardeners and start up new community gardens on church and government properties.

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“If you look at what people’s nutritional needs are, it’s more than processed macaroni and cheese and so forth,” said organizing member Paul Kazyak. “We want to provide folks, especially young children, with a healthy diet.”

Elly Engle, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at McDaniel College, said that the financial hardship caused by unemployment and the disruptions in supply chains were the immediate needs that prompted them to start Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors.

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“We were already talking and already working together on building local and resilient food systems. And I think the pandemic kicked us into gear,” she said.

While that one gardener might not be able to set up a partnership with a food bank to donate a few extra zucchini, the network “exposes what our collective impact can be. And that’s how communities survive in any given situation, is through collective action and collective impacts,” Engle said.

About 50 gardens across the Carroll area are already part of the effort, Kazyak estimates. Some are tended by already-avid gardeners. Others are newly created or re-started in spaces owned by churches or community organizations.

Their soon-to-be-launched website will be a way to connect as a volunteer or as a person looking to receive some of the produce. It will launch at sites.google.com/view/neighborsnourishingneighbors.

When harvesting begins, the network will be looking for volunteers with vehicles to schedule pickups to transport food from gardens to distribution partners. Spreading the word about the network is also valuable, Engle said.

“People don’t necessarily need to do anything different to contribute,” Engle said. “It could just be a matter of, ‘Oh, you already have a backyard garden and you always have too many tomatoes. Well, you know, distribute them to this network instead of putting them in your compost.‘”

The organizers wanted to connect people with different skills, acknowledging that one person can’t be good at everything. The gardeners are sticking to what they are good at, and partnering with nonprofits who have already built community networks and experience with food distribution.

On a humid Wednesday in June, the Human Services Program of Carroll County’s (HSP) garden in Westminster was busy with activity. It’s split into several plots, managed by different groups. There is at least one plot left with space, and Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors hopes to help expand the size of the garden.

More info on the garden is available at hspinc.org/community-garden. Produce grown there is distributed via area soup kitchens, food pantries, HSP’s Shelters, and Second Chances. Other produce goes directly to the members of the organizations tending the plots.

That evening, volunteers from the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster were watering and weeding. A volunteer from Grace Lutheran Church was on her second trip to the garden that day. Sam and Jennie Chamelin and their children were tending the Keep & Till’s patches planted with lines of beans and potatoes and other veggies. The Keep & Till, a ministry focused on rural life and agriculture and Sam is also the HSP garden’s manager, assisted by recent McDaniel College graduate Rachael Fox. Both are members of Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors, working on making the connections between the gardeners and the organizations experienced with distributing food.

Engle has been working at a community garden on Union Street near the Westminster Community of Shalom Community Center, and at the McDaniel campus garden where the grounds crew built her “a beautiful anti-groundhog fence.”

“It’s kind of a fun time where all the seeds have now popped up so you can see what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “But also the time that you have to religiously water the gardens because the rain is so unpredictable.”

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Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors is not looking for monetary donations at this time. Most of their start-up supplies were donated. For example, the Winters Mill High School agriculture students donated some plants from their greenhouse after their annual plant sale was canceled. Hidey’s Landscape Supply donated fertilizer.

They would encourage people to donate funds to organizations that distribute food instead, such as Carroll Food Sunday.

None of the organizers plan to stop after this year’s growing season.

“I know something like 14% of young people have food insecurity, so they’re not getting enough food on a monthly basis. And that’s something that we really need to tackle, and I think we can start to help address that with Neighbors Nourishing Neighbors,” Kazyak said.

Engle hopes this start can “lay the groundwork for a food system that is a bit more localized or community-focused in Carroll County, to build long term sustainability. Because these food system issues, they existed before the pandemic, [and] they’re going to continue to be worse during and after.”

She believes local food creates economic opportunity and builds relationships between people from different backgrounds.

As the effort grows, Kazyak said he wants to see them want to provide more opportunities for people to be able to grow their own food in the shared gardens: “If we can find those opportunities, it’s a wonderful community builder. People are building their own self-sufficiency, their own self-confidence.”

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