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Garden City Harvest sees surging interest in community ag as stores run short

Posted at 8:38 AM, Mar 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 16:19:09-04

MISSOULA — An early run on food at local grocery stores has led to increased interest in community supported agriculture and local vegetable shares – two programs headed by Garden City Harvest.

Jean Zosel, executive director, said interest in her organization’s programs has expanded over the past two weeks, and most of those asking about the programs are new to community agriculture.

“Most of the uptick has been the purchase of our CSA or vegetable shares,” said Zosel. “There’s a slow and steady sign-up that goes on this time of year, but all of a sudden in the last week, we saw a 45% increase, and 75% of them are new to our CSA program, which is really unusual to us.”

Zosel said interest ebbs and flows in the spring, and some years are greater than others. But when the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced in Montana and led to a run on items at local grocery stores, interest in locally-sourced food boomed.

“Nobody’s claiming there’s a food shortage right now, but when people go to the store and see empty shelves, it makes them panic a little bit, and then they respond to that panic,” said Zosel. “We’re seeing more interest in what we do. As people feel like they don’t have as much control, these are ways they can get some control.”

The spike in interest has Garden City Harvest taking a second look at its programs and where it can offer more help, be it additional scholarships to those who can’t afford a garden plot to growing more food for those in need.

Over the course of a typical year, the organization’s work reaches an estimated 20,000 people, and many organizations rely upon the locally-grown produce, including the soup kitchen at the Poverello Center, the Missoula Food Back, area seniors, and local youth and group homes.

“There are a lot of for-profit farmers in Missoula growing food, and that’s an important service they’re doing. It all reinforces that resilience and self sufficiently,” said Zosel.

“The difference with us, we’re focusing on those in our community who are struggling to make ends meet. Those are the people already termed food insecure, and that base is growing because more people are out of work. We’re making this food accessible to more marginalized groups in our community. Right now, we’re looking at ways we can do more.”

Garden City Harvest was established in 1996 and has worked ever since to revive the tradition of producing local food in local in local fields. The organization provides a farm to school program, neighborhood farms, youth development and community gardens.

The sudden surge of interest in community supported agriculture caught Garden City Harvest a little off guard, Zosel said. But it’s working to respond to the demand and is searching for ways to accommodate more people interested in the program.

The organization operates 10 community gardens that include 400 plots, with each plot capable of yielding nearly 300 pounds of food. That’s enough to feed a family, keep frozen goods for winter, and make small donations to friends and food banks.

A few years ago, Zosel said, 115 people were on the program’s waiting list, prompting the organization to build two new gardens. One garden was recently lost when the property changed hands, leaving the program with no net gain.

“We’re still at 400 plots this year, and last year our waiting list was 45, so I anticipate it will be longer this year,” Zosel said. “We’ve got returning gardeners and we’re doing a lottery of those who have signed up. It’ll be interesting in a month to see how much of a waiting list we have. I’m anticipating that will be greater than it’s been in the past.”

Like other businesses and organization across Missoula, the pandemic has arrived with new cautions and concerns. Staff members who tend the tender spring sprouts in the program’s greenhouses are taking care during the ongoing crisis.

“We’ve got people in the greenhouses working, and if we can’t take care of the plants in the greenhouse, then we have nothing to put in the fields, and we’re kind of sunk and there’s no food this summer from us,” said Zosel.

“Right now is kind of a critical time in that regard. We’re focusing on safe practices now and thinking about when people come in to pick up their shares so people feel safe.”