USDA Garden Feeds the Hungry

Researchers at the USDA grow veggies for donation. Ocean View students pitch in.

Two years ago, the research center dug up a patch of its lawn on Buchanan Street and put in a vegetable garden. 

Now, this year alone, garden workers have donated a ton of vegetables –- not a ton as in, “boy that’s a lot,” but literally 2,000 pounds –- to soup kitchens and food pantries.

“A good part of what we plant is what will be most useful at a food bank,” said Rebecca Haussmann, one of the garden team leaders. This year what’s useful has included cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and zucchini.

Donating food was the goal from the start. While the garden might sound like a grassroots movement (funny how those puns slip out), in this case, the inspiration came from the top, that is, from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In 2009 he challenged USDA employees at facilities around the country to create gardens to serve their communities.

In Albany, about a dozen research scientists head outside for an hour every Thursday afternoon during growing season, planting, weeding and harvesting. Clearly, they’re not all seasoned farmers, since a spider elicited a shriek one recent afternoon.

The gardeners get to take a small amount of the harvest for their personal use as an incentive (the geese take a share, too), but deliver the bulk of it to one of several charities each week. Most has gone to the Alameda County Community Food Bank and the CityTeam Ministries in Oakland.

“It’s amazing what you can do even with six people,” Haussmann said. Indeed, on a recent Thursday, eight volunteers picked 400 pounds of pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers in an hour.

Twice a year they get help from Loree Bruckmann-Harmon’s third grade class at neighboring . The kids help plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. Last month they appeared to discover the wonders -- and better yet, the horrors -- of rot.

“The compost pile was the place to be,” Haussmann said.

After the last vegetables come out this month, a cover crop will go in for the winter, to prepare the soil for next year’s garden.

For more on the garden, visit this page. The project is not accepting outside volunteers at this time.

Everybody makes mistakes ... ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at emilier@patch.com. 

Sylvia Paull October 17, 2011 at 03:04 PM
great story, Emilie. This makes the USDA a wonderful citizen in my book. I wish they'd let Albanians plant a garden on their soil as well for community use.
Copper Hat October 17, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Great idea!
Ebba October 17, 2011 at 05:26 PM
I was a parent chaperone when Mrs. H's class went to help harvest the garden last month. It was a great experience for the kids. I really enjoyed seeing kids picking veggies and devouring them right then and there. They couldn't get enough of the sugar snap peas and that night my son was willing to try veggies he hadn't tasted before because he had picked them. It's inspired us to plant some at home. Thank you Mrs. H and USDA for the experience!
Ross Stapleton-Gray October 18, 2011 at 02:06 AM
I was leafing through the El Cerrito city course book, and note that they rent garden plots, supplying water and green waste disposal... the rental rates seemed great, and the idea's a fine one for those who lack a yard with garden space.


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