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Digging Deep for Those in Need

Community Learning Garden Donating 100% of Harvest to Campus Pantry Amid Pandemic

By Annie Krakower

Two gardeners plant crops

Photos by Meredith Epstein

Ruby Dessiatoun (left) and Meg Smolinski plant napa cabbage and cipollini onions in the Community Learning Garden in March. To help with the increased demand amid COVID-19, the garden is donating 100% of its harvest to the Campus Pantry. Below, Smolinski (back, with thumbs up) and Meredith Epstein (front, with daughter on back) wear face masks as they prepare to harvest.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter the economy, the number of people lining up at the University of Maryland Campus Pantry has more than quadrupled compared to previous semesters. But while need surges, support from Terps across campus is growing—literally.

The Community Learning Garden (CLG), a green space run by a few dedicated UMD employees during the outbreak, is donating 100% of its 2020 harvest to the Campus Pantry to help address the increased demand. Twice a week, the CLG team brings its haul of fresh produce for the pantry to add to grocery packages distributed to those in need. 

Two gardeners wear face masks“It was an obvious choice,” said Meredith Epstein, CLG faculty adviser and senior lecturer in the Institute of Applied Agriculture. “It’s helped us expand our view of what it means to be socially sustainable and builds on that ‘community’ aspect of the Community Learning Garden.”

The CLG, nestled between the Eppley Recreation Center and School of Public Health Building, began in 2010 as a graduate student project and has evolved into a joint venture among students, faculty and staff, teaching hands-on gardening skills and encouraging time spent in nature. In a typical semester, the CLG hosts Garden Hour twice a week, when members of the community can plant, do some weeding and take home some of the harvest. Extra produce is donated to the Campus Pantry.

But as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered people to stay at home in late March and the need at the pantry was ballooning, CLG staff decided to offer its full harvests.

“For everybody who is struggling and looking to the Campus Pantry as an important resource, anything that we can provide, especially if it’s fresh and healthy, is really a welcome addition to their pantries and tables,” said Allison Tjaden, assistant director of new initiatives for Dining Services. “It really means a tremendous amount due to the uncertainty and hardship that people are experiencing.”

The pantry, which seeks to fight food insecurity in the UMD community, normally serves around 70 people per week. That number has incrementally increased during the pandemic, reaching as high as 370. Previously open just on Fridays, it’s expanded its hours to Tuesdays as well, relocating from the University Health Center to a more accessible location off the South Campus Dining Hall loading dock. And with student workers and volunteers now off-campus, Dining Services staff from across the department has stepped up to run the pantry.

The CLG has had to similarly adjust its operations. Normally, hundreds of students, faculty and staff volunteer at the garden throughout the semester, but due to the stay-at-home order, Epstein and Meg Smolinski, CLG’s staff adviser and the UMD Arboretum & Botanical Gardens’ outreach coordinator, are shouldering the load. Smolinski, an essential Facilities Management employee, handles much of the garden’s physical care, while Epstein tackles the crop plan from home and heads to campus on harvest days. Epstein’s husband, Terp Farm Manager Guy Kilpatric, “literally took the lumber of our deck railings apart and repurposed it into a greenhouse,” she said, so she’s able to care for young seedlings from home as well. (The Terp Farm is similarly donating its harvest to the Campus Pantry.)

Smolinski and Epstein also have the support of around 15 student volunteers and interns who work remotely, helping develop the crop plan, which outlines what will be planted and when it will be harvested, and managing grant proposals and social media posts.

“The garden is an intense garden to manage. Vegetable gardens require a lot of care and maintenance,” Smolinski said. “(The COVID-19 outbreak has) definitely increased the workload, but knowing that I’m contributing to the pantry and doing something that is so important at this time really makes it worth it.”

Epstein estimates that they’ve donated around 30 pounds of food to the Campus Pantry per week so far—but that’s more than it sounds like, she said, because most of that has been light, leafy greens like spinach, herbs and pea shoots. They’ve increased their production and are growing a wider array of produce, such as squashes, Asian and African greens and hot peppers.

“We’re trying to find ways that our small garden can make a big impact by growing things that are a little more diverse,” Epstein said.

The CLG plans to continue donating to the Campus Pantry throughout the summer, and the pantry will stay the course as well, Tjaden said.

“Everybody is coming together with those same goals and aims to help those fellow Terps,” she said. “It means a lot.”

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