The USDA People’s Garden: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities

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Energy and the Environment

On the 200th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the establishment of the People’s Garden project in honor of President Lincoln, who called the Department of Agriculture “the people’s department.”

What started with a single vegetable garden on the grounds of USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. has grown into global movement. In their offices across the country and all over the world, USDA employees are volunteering their time to create community gardens, demonstrate sustainable agricultural techniques that everyday people can incorporate into their homes and lives, and showcase the importance of preserving the environment and conserving energy.

Tom Steger, is the District Conservationist for the Goodhue, Minnesota Field office. Tom and his fellow employees responded to the People’s Garden project by converting a flower garden outside their building into a beautiful vegetable garden. During his lunch break, Tom gets his hands in the soil, often working alongside Kate, an employee of the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and others.

So far, they have harvested 55 pounds of produce, including beets, green beans, yellow beans, squash, carrots, onions, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes. All of this nutritious food has been donated to two local food shelves, helping alleviate hunger in their community. Locally grown food saves on the cost of transportation, thereby conserving energy. Additionally, healthy growing plants sequester carbon and release oxygen into the atmosphere.

Last week, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan cut the ribbon to open a roof-top garden project atop the offices of USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) in Washington, D.C. “People's Gardens can take many forms and, with this new garden, USDA continues to lead by example and to engage the public about the importance of conserving our land and water resources,” said Merrigan. "Urban roof-top gardens, whether they contain vegetables, flowers, or other decorative plants, can create habitat for pollinators and provide precious green space in areas where green is scarce."

The garden will feature native perennial plants that flower in spring and summer and that require no fertilizer. Plans also include an interior container garden of edible plants to demonstrate that vegetables can grow in small spaces and with sustainable practices.

In addition, volunteer experts from the Audubon Naturalist Society presented the purpose behind home rain barrels, and explained to two dozen visitors at the Peoples' Garden the usefulness for a homeowner of installing a rain barrel, including savings on water usage (and on the water bill!). They went over the many options available to people considering a rain barrel on their property, including the size of the barrel, necessary equipment, and the choice between home construction of a barrel and commercial purchase. When the rain runs off your home or apartment, it collects pollutants and debris -- and carries them directly into the nearest storm drain, beginning their journey to local bodies of water.

In the mid-Atlantic, for example, storm runoff is a leading cause of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. This is just one more way people can be involved in conservation from their homes. Every Friday at the Peoples' Garden outside the Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington, USDA staff and volunteer experts are holding similar Healthy Garden Workshops, showing visitors many other tips to get involved in gardening and conservation.

The People's Garden project brings people together to make a difference in their communities. Tom and fellow USDA employees have found this to be a very meaningful experience. Delivering the produce from the garden to the local food shelves has been especially rewarding, as it marks the culmination of a process that helps the environment, conserves energy, beautifies the community, and provides nutritious food to people in need.

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