Guest column by Cara Culp
In 2016, the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District (HCSWCD), located just north of Indianapolis, was awarded an NACD grant to develop an urban agriculture program with a special emphasis on alleviating food insecurity.
Access to fresh produce is limited for food insecure families in Hamilton County, Indiana. In an effort to change that, HCSWCD first surveyed 33 food pantries in the county and met with multiple organizations – now newfound partners – interested in addressing similar produce scarcity concerns.
“We wanted to provide a way for food pantry guests to easily grow and harvest fresh vegetables right outside their door,” said Andrew Fritz, the urban agriculture conservationist for HCSWCD.
With that goal in mind, the Container Garden Project was born. Through the program, HCSWCD started tomato plants in containers and provided them for free to local food pantries to distribute to their guests.
“From online research, we identified a determinate variety of cherry tomato called Sweet n Neat that successfully grows in a two-gallon container, has a short maturity time, and produces throughout the summer,” he said. “A local seed distributor donated the seeds and we worked with a local leaf composter and expert container gardener to create an optimal soil mix. We then collaborated with a local commercial greenhouse so that the tomatoes would be ready to distribute by late May. The cost to HCSWCD for this project was approximately $1.50 per container garden, including the pots.”
HCSWCD provided waterproof care instruction cards with each pot they prepared, plus an invitation to sign up for a free text messaging service that sends care reminders and growing advice. To date, HCSWCD has distributed 165 plants – all of which were picked up by food pantry guests within a day. The district has also partnered with over 25 different food pantries throughout the county and has created a number of programs in which gardeners (backyard and community), businesses, and service clubs can donate fresh produce to local food pantries.
The district hopes that families who utilize food pantries will be inspired by the Container Garden Project to incorporate more healthy foods into their diets and to grow more of their own food in the future. For more information about this program, visit www.HamiltonSWCD.org/foodpantries.