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Missouri Program Brings Fresh Food to Regional Pantries, One Seed Pack at a Time

September 23, 2014 |

Photo by Kyle Spradley

Photo by Kyle Spradley

Grow Well Missouri has taken a simple concept – distributing seeds to people who visit a local food pantry – and started a mini-fresh food revolution. 

The program originated at the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at the University of Missouri. The program had its “soft opening” after a research group surveyed food pantry clients and discovered some interesting data. 

One of the research questions asked pantry clients where else they got food. 

“Forty percent of people in a survey that included about 1,200 people who use food pantries in the central northeast Missouri region said they got food from a garden,” Bill McKelvey, Grow Well Missouri project coordinator, says. “With some grant funding from the USDA, we piloted a project to work with food pantries to try to find ways we could help them improve the nutritional quality of their food.” 

The main avenue the pilot program began to research was seed distribution. That’s when the seed project was born.

“It was a very rudimentary project in some ways,” McKelvey says. “We purchased some bulk vegetable garden seed from a company in Missouri and repackaged it with little labels. We took it out to the food pantries we were working with at the time just to see if people were interested, and to see if folks would pick up seeds, and to gauge their response.” 

Almost immediately, the project runners discovered that people were very interested in Grow Well’s seeds. 

“At the time, we were also using some University of Missouri Extension publications,” he says. “So we tried to offer some educational materials and seeds in an effort to see if it could work. Based on that response, we learned that it was popular and it was something that could be expanded.” 

To help expand the project, Grow Well applied for a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. 

“We proposed to focus on seed distribution and gardening education through food pantries and to also work on local community partnerships to enhance health and wellness in communities,” McKelvey says. “When we received the grant, we formally launched the Grow Well Missouri Project.”

Grow Well is still small in scale. It’s helmed by a graduate student who is in the university’s rural sociology program, and a number of university faculty that are part of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, the University Extension, and regional food pantries. Grow Well also has partnered with people at the university in the Health Communications Research Center as well. 

McKelvey works closely with some of the food pantry directors, and in each community, Grow Well also works with a number of groups. 

“The master gardeners are partners. And depending on the location it might be the Kiwanis, or the County Health Department,” he says. “It looks different in each community, but we just try to draw from the folks who have an interest and have an overlapping mission.”

The majority of people who get seeds from the program grow home gardens. A lot of these people have gardened their whole lives, McKelvey says. “It’s been a lot of fun to connect with those folks and hear about how they grow certain things, or how they deal with bugs.” 

While many of the participants do garden already, others had been exposed to gardening at some point but didn’t currently garden, and others had never gardened at all. All the people, though, seemed excited about Grow Well and saw the value of gardening. 

“Gardening has all types of benefits in addition to providing good and healthy food,” he says. “Folks recognize that and see the value of starting a garden.” 

While starting a garden to obtain fresh food is not a new idea, Grow Well is trying to become a resource and motivator for people. The organization visits food pantries from March through October and provides a selection of seeds and educational materials. 

Next year, Grow Well plans on running some classes and providing more in-depth education. 

“In one of our communities, they have started a community garden,” McKelvey says. “It’s affiliated with the food pantry, and they have a group of master gardeners who are out there quite a bit.” 

The master gardeners noticed that some of the people could use some direction when it comes to gardening, so they plan on providing some basic gardening information, dealing with crop selection for small gardens, garden spaces, how to take care of plants, and more.

Down the line, Grow Well plans to create a solid model so other groups can adopt the program, too. McKelvey wants to be able to tell them the approximate cost and to provide a training program, too. 

“It’s just been really gratifying to get that feedback and to gear from folks and to hear from them that their gardens are making a difference in their lives,” McKelvey says. “People tell us that they appreciate us being out there, and that they really like the chance to pick out seeds and tell us how their gardens are doing.”

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