The USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois (a.k.a. “The Ag Lab”) has a storied history of scientific and technological innovation that includes methods to mass-produce penicillin and biobased engine lubricants.
Many of its impacts are far-reaching in scope with benefits to humankind and the environment. However, Ag Lab members are just as focused on having positive impact on the surrounding community and its members.
This was demonstrated this fall with donations of organically grown squash, tomato, and other vegetables harvested from “The People’s Garden,” a 45 x 63-foot plot located behind the Ag Lab.
According to organizers Susan McCormick and Ethan Roberts, harvests from the garden are typically donated to local food pantries, kitchens, and other charity groups for distribution to needy families and other community members. In 2021, Ag Lab volunteers donated 1,350 pounds of harvested produce to Sophia’s Angels Kitchen, which prepares meals for Peoria’s hungry.
McCormick said the Ag Lab began its People’s Garden in 2010 and has donated a total of 14,000 pounds of produce to date (excluding the 2020 pandemic year).
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack established the People’s Garden Initiative in 2009 to encourage departmental employees nationwide to reconnect with the communal act of growing food and sharing the bounty with others. More broadly, these community-centered gardens reflect USDA’s commitment to strengthen local food systems and enhance access to nutritious foods through President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative.
“Harvesting produce raised from seed is the reward at the end of all the labor,” said Roberts. “Not only does the produce go to feeding people in need, but practicing cultivation helps us to understand and relate to the stakeholders we aim to serve.”