A new shed was built by volunteers and members of Community Food Initiatives (CFI) at the Eastside Community Garden over the weekend after the original build on June 21, or Serve Ohio Day, was postponed due to weather.

After seeing a surge of interest in gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the previous shed was not able to hold all the necessary materials needed to keep the garden pristine and thriving.

Serve Ohio is a branch of AmeriCorps, a federal program that places volunteers with local nonprofits, that oversees all Ohio AmeriCorps members placed in local communities. Members receive a living stipend for serving the community and volunteering in the area.

Raya Abner, the Garden Programs Coordinator at CFI, has been with the group since August of 2020 and described the work as hard but rewarding. She got her start in the nonprofit sphere through her work with United Campus Ministry while an undergrad at Ohio University in their community meals program.

“I really enjoyed doing that work and became really interested in food justice and specifically the local Athens food system,” said Abner.

Through her previous work, a passion for food justice developed and only grew more with her time at CFI.

“I was not prepared for how much I would fall in love with gardening this year. Coming in and really seeing every aspect of a local food system is so awesome,” explained Abner. “Food is really what brings people together and makes a community. Everybody bonds over food.”

CFI runs five community gardens across the county in Athens Eastside and Southside as well as gardens in Chauncey, Nelsonville, and Glouster. Lots are rented out to Athenians to give them space to grow their own sustainable, organic food and flowers. CFI also uses space to grow food for their Donation Station that is set up at the Athens Farmers Market.

They purchase food from local farmers to supply the station with food to then be distributed to food access partners that serve those facing food insecurity. By purchasing food from local farmers, donated funds are put back into the local economy while also feeding those in the community who are in need.

Some gardeners have shared with Abner that they even shared their yields with neighbors during the pandemic to lighten the load. Others have donated food back to CFI in further effort to help their community.

The increased need was evident to those working in the food sustainability sector. Over 100,000 pounds of food was donated by CFI in 2020 compared to 75,000 pounds in 2019, an increase of 25 percent.

“I think people realized, especially with gardening, that they needed a more stable way to get food and they needed to be more self reliant,” said Abner.

Beyond the community gardens, CFI runs 13 school gardens across the region through their Sprouts program designed to teach first graders about gardening and where their food comes from. Some of the kids in the program are being introduced to different kinds of produce for the first time.

The children seem to genuinely enjoy the program, according to Abner, who stated, “We come across a lot of kids who haven’t had a lot of fruits and vegetables before. They get so excited about watching everything grow.”

The food grown by the children has even been used in school lunches with plans for lettuce grown in the Amesville Garden to be used in the fall.

For more information about CFI and their programs, visit their website at www.comunityfoodinitiatives.org.

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Twitter: @amhulvalchick Email: ahulvalchick@athensmessenger.com

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