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Carrots grown in the organic Helping Hands Kitchen Garden are headed to an urban food pantry. The fruit and vegetable garden is part of UT Gardens. Image by H. Jones, courtesy UTIA.

The U.S. Botanic Garden and the American Public Gardens Association have partnered to offer immediate support to established urban agriculture and other urban food-growing programs at public gardens affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, the organizations awarded $378,000 to 28 public gardens across the United States, including the Helping Hands Kitchen Garden at the University of Tennessee Gardens, Knoxville.

The funds will help sustain urban agriculture and community food growing during a time that has seen these programs have heightened impacts and importance in their communities. During the pandemic, many Americans have turned to home gardening for access to fresh, healthy food, as a recreational activity or as a family learning experience. Urban gardens have also proved to be vital in providing produce to address food deserts and areas of community need.

Funding from the two organization’s Urban Agriculture Resilience Program aims to promote resilience, increase capacity, prevent shortfalls and gather best practices from established programs across the U.S. public gardens community. The goals include facilitating public urban gardens in their abilities to grow and distribute produce, especially to communities with food access challenges; maintaining and expanding urban agriculture and other food growing education programs; and promoting wellness and nutrition by educating the public about growing and consuming fruits and vegetables.

Beyond providing immediate support, the Urban Agriculture Resilience Program will provide insight into successful approaches and future opportunities for public gardens — through varying program models — to improve food access and advance food and agriculture education in urban communities, particularly during times of crisis.

The Helping Hands Kitchen Garden at UT Gardens, Knoxville, seeks to demonstrate sustainable production of edible plants for home gardeners. The space is multi-functional, serving as a living laboratory for college students, a classroom for community education classes and an interactive display garden that is free and open to the public. Produce from the garden is donated to local food banks and charity organizations.

UT horticulturalist Holly Jones directs the Helping Hands Kitchen Garden. Jones says funds received from the U.S. Botanic Garden and the American Public Gardens Association will pay for a temporary full-time gardener and education program assistant to enhance the display garden, increase produce donations and improve community outreach efforts.

“When our visitors see fruits and veggies being grown successfully, many are inspired to grow their own and maybe even donate their extras to people in need. Having someone dedicated full-time to the care of this garden will make it more productive and more attractive, which will help get people excited about vegetable gardening,” Jones says. “We will also be offering a free series of virtual edible gardening classes to the public. More information on these classes will be available on the UT Gardens social media channels and through the UT Gardens newsletter, which is free to the public.”

So far this year, the Helping Hands Kitchen Garden has donated 150 pounds of fresh produce to five local charities through the Society of St. Andrew gleaning organization. “The awarded funds will enable us to increase this number significantly for the rest of the growing season,” Jones says.

“As a university public garden situated in an urban setting, UT Gardens is a great resource for people to see and learn how healthy foods can be produced in even the smallest places,” says interim director James Newburn. “This award will certainly positively impact our ability to demonstrate proper growing techniques and supply local food banks with fresh produce.”

The UT Gardens includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Crossville, and Jackson. Designated as the official botanical garden for the state of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The Gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education, and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs, and research trials. The Gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information, see the Gardens website.