Photograph by Audree Notoras

Community members like intern Paula Jean Tonsor, left, and Been could take home whatever food they grow in the Mother Hubbard's Cupboard Community Gardens. But most opt to donate their produce to the "Hub," a local food pantry that helps feed the hungry.

With food and gas prices rising in a slowing economy, it seems there is no escape for low-income families in Bloomington. As they try to survive paycheck to paycheck, choices must be made. Is there enough money to pay the electric bill? Is there enough put aside for an emergency? Is there enough for groceries and the bills?

While many face these types of questions with uncertainty, there are small solutions that can help save money and lead to another positive outcome -- better nutrition.

Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’s (MHC) Community Gardens Program teaches patrons and Bloomington residents an economical way to grow food in their own backyards. By combining nutritional and gardening education, participants learn a basic life skill that people of all ages are lacking in modern times.

“I strongly feel that having more community food security and having more home gardens is one of the keys of cutting down on the amount of poverty in a community and to just creating a beautiful and sustainable community,” says Stephanie Solomon, MHC’s assistant director.

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The Community Gardening Program has grown since its start seven years ago. Beginning with one plot at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, the program has expanded to three different locations. The largest plot is at Crestmont Community Gardens, while two smaller gardens can be found at Harmony School and Banneker Community Center. The program also provides nutritional classes throughout the year, in addition to gardening training.


Photograph by Audree Notoras

Volunteer Steve Forrest and Tonsor work at the MHC garden at Harmony School. Other plots are located at Crestmont and at the Banneker Center.

“I’m getting people into the gardens and helping them see that it is possible to grow your own food,” Solomon says. “We teach them easy ways to do things and challenge them at the same time. If someone is excited about growing rutabagas, we’ll grow it and see what we can do. We’ve had some success and some failure, but that’s how gardening goes.”

An average of 50 volunteers sign up for the program, and 80 percent of them are MHC patrons. Other volunteers include Bloomington residents, IU students in service-learning classes and local school district students.

Volunteer Steve Forrest, also a sustainability advocate, hopes to learn from his work at the gardens. He says it is nice to do his own work but still have help if he is unsure how to do something.

A volunteer who goes by the name of Been believes the gardens are a great place for people who do not get to be in nature that often.

“Although I’m really busy these days, I feel it’s important to make time to be here,” she says.

The food grown and cared for by people like Forrest and Been goes directly to MHC’s food pantry. Although roughly 98 percent of the food at the pantry comes from Hoosier Hills Food Bank, the 2 percent from the gardens still generates a lot of pride.

Whatever volunteers grow at the MHC gardens, they can take. Solomon, however, finds that everyone working at the gardens is so excited about sending the harvest to the pantry that they do not usually take for themselves.

“Often they’ll end up taking things that appear too ugly to offer at the pantry,” she says. “But everything’s being eaten and enjoyed that we’re putting our energy into.”


Photograph by Audree Notoras

Stephanie Solomon, right, is the MHC's assistant director. She says about 80 percent of the Community Gardens volunteers are also food pantry clients.

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One problem with today’s society is that most children, and even some adults, grow up not knowing where their food comes from.

“Having that life skill to grow a garden is pretty life-altering,” Solomon declares.

Learning where a potato comes from or what part of a plant a carrot is at a young age can give children skills to work from, she explains. This type of basic knowledge has been lost in an era where most people buy their food at the local grocery store chains.

MHC offers classes throughout the year to train participants in more than just gardening techniques, like education on nutritional and basic needs that can be implemented through homegrown foods and plants. A recent class taught participants the types of plants found right outside their houses that can be used as basic herbal remedies.

“It’s this meditative, wonderful thing, but out of it you’re producing food, which is this basic, essential need that all humans have,” Solomon says.

As for the future of the program, she says, “The goal is to continue to grow and grow more.”

Audree Notoras can be reached at anotoras@indiana.edu.

Dates and descriptions of classes and volunteer hours at the MHC gardens