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2016 Challenge Winner

Hamilton County 4-H GIFT Garden
facilitated by the
University of Illinois Extension
McLeansboro, IL

We offer opportunities to educate youth and adults about feeding our local community. We donate produce to the Hungry Hearts lunch program and other food initiatives. The Hungry Hearts program serves free sack lunches during summer break to any child wishing to receive a healthy lunch. With these needs in the community, the GIFT Garden is of great assistance in helping fight local hunger in this small community.

With several hunger initiatives already in existence in this county, our project works closely with each one to address their needs. We donate fresh fruits and vegetables to each of the initiatives as well as needy families in the community.  Last year we had youth leaders attend several civic organizations to present a power point presentation showcasing the garden and the multiple donation locations in the community.  This group has been very successful at spreading the word about the GIFT Garden and their many contributions to the community.

The GIFT Garden began in 2013 with an empty lot and very poor soil.  Because of a lot of hard work and determination the GIFT Garden has evolved into a great learning environment. This summer over 47 youth and 14 adults volunteered a total of 1,105 hours to grow 1,356 pounds of produce. With the past four years combined seasons a total of 2,865 pounds were donated to local food pantries, nursing homes, Heritage Woods and needy families. 580 pounds of produce were used during cooking classes and 3,705 pounds were sold at the local Farmer Market. A total of $3,309.25 has been raised by selling produce during the weekly Hamilton County Farmers Market. This money is used to pay for needed tools, supplies, (including all supplies for the cooking classes) gas for the mower and utility bills.

Four years ago the garden was established with 21 raised beds and 69 hills of vegetables. Next year we plan to continue what we have done over the past four and also add some new gardening practices and expand the straw bale garden. The garden will be cared for daily with adult and youth volunteers. All summer we hold weekly farmers markets and sell some produce. The produce that does not sell is donated to various food initiatives. Any funds raised at the farmers market are used to help with the gardens sustainability. Families are encouraged to help in the garden in exchange for free produce.

During the summer months we hold weekly cooking classes focused on using produce out of the garden. Last year we made dill pickles, applesauce, pickled beets, salsa, salad, strawberry jam and sauerkraut.

The summer classes proved to be very successful this past summer. Tuesday mornings were very busy as 25 –30 youth learned how to wash, prepare, cook, can and preserve the produce from the garden. The most popular projects were salsa, corn, pickles and zucchini muffins. On Wednesday’s youth went to the garden to learn hands on gardening skills and prepare produce for the farmers market.

On Wednesday afternoons youth were able to sell produce and visit with customers at the Hamilton County Farmers Market. High school teens were trained as Teens as Teachers and were very helpful as they helped in countless ways to ensure the program ran smoothly.  This gave them the opportunity to gain skills and confidence in their abilities as they prepared for college in the fall.

This project has gained a lot of recognition and community support. Local businesses and individuals are stepping up to donate funds to help expand this project.We apply for every grant opportunity we find. So if we would receive this grant we would purchase new tools, possibly expand the straw bale garden and build more raised beds.