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backyard garden with raised garden beds

Victory gardens: How UF helped communities grow during the pandemic and beyond

COVID-19 brought national food supply-chain disruptions, increased pressure on food banks and struggle for families across the country. The statewide UF/IFAS Extension victory garden program began as an effort to empower those in need to grow their own food and resulted in participants harvesting more than 3,000 pounds of home-grown food.

The concept of victory gardens dates to World War I when the U.S. had to pivot the fresh fruit and vegetable supply to soldiers overseas. Americans at home were encouraged to do their part to support the war effort by planting their own gardens to feed their families. Extension agents around the country were deployed to assist in the education and development of these gardens. To quantify the size and scope of this effort, the number of Extension agents in the U.S. almost tripled from 1917 to 1918.

One program to meet the needs of many

UF/IFAS Extension agents saw similar needs develop last year. Families began to homestead and isolate in their homes and desired the ability to be more self-reliant when surrounded by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Home gardens offered the solution, but unlike the efforts a century ago, few have gardening experience today.

“COVID-19 was, is, and continues to be one of the strangest times in history,” said Emma Cannon, UF/IFAS Extension Marion County 4-H youth development agent. “It threw everything everyone knew off kilter. To be able to bring joy and community to people through plants allowed me to feel that we were actually making a difference in the lives of citizens.”

The goal of the program was to increase participants’ knowledge of gardening and home food production, build social connections via an online community and improve participants overall well-being.

“We are all in this pandemic together and planting food is exactly what I was doing in my own life, so it was natural to share with others,” said Tia Silvasy, UF/IFAS Extension Orange County horticulture agent. “Our program gave participants hope. Planting seeds is something tangible they could do at home and we helped empower them to do it successfully.”

The program began in Marion and Columbia counties which both rank above the statewide average for food insecurity at 14.4% and 15.2%, respectively. Then, other counties across the state joined in to offer the program.

“The Victory 2020 Garden program could not have come at a more opportune time. People were on fire to learn and do despite being safe at home,” said Heather Janney, UF/IFAS Extension Columbia county director. “We reached adults and youth across the globe. The survey results truly surprised me, with 82% of adults reporting that because of this program, the quality of time spent with family members improved.”

Impacts felt across the country

More than 2,500 participants across 37 states and six countries participated in the eight-module online program. Participants were given corn, squash, cucumber and cowpea seeds to start their garden and had access to an online community monitored by Extension to offer additional support. Respondents’ outreach and collaboration with family members and peers brought the total estimated reach of the program to 225,000 people.

“We had gardeners of all levels,” Silvasy said. “For some, they grew their first tomato. Others were growing hundreds of pounds of produce.”

For more than half of the participants, this was their first ‘serious experience’ with gardening and growing food at home. However, 98% of participants indicated interest in gardening in the future, a sign that the program “stuck” and left lasting impacts on those who participated.

Participants reported an improvement in mental health, financial savings on food-related costs and a reduction in stress level during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eric Muenks, a program participant from Orlando, shared how the victory gardens helped him get through this period.

“Gardening became a sort of mental health intervention for me,” he said. “I had just moved my elderly parents here from Missouri when everything went into lockdown. Both my husband’s and my own jobs were impacted; it was a really hard time.”

Eric gardened for several years prior to the pandemic but his interest peaked throughout the lockdown. He started the pandemic with four raised beds and now has 21.

“I used to complain about living in Florida because it was so hot and all of the mosquitoes and other things I disliked about being outside here,” he said. “I would save money to get away on one or two ski trips a year. Now, I wait all week for the ability to have nothing to do but garden and the victory gardens program instilled this in me.”

Eric has a background in mental health counseling and reflected on what the future holds for his passions.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I am now interested in the horticulture therapy movement,” Eric said. “There are so many ways people find peace through therapy such as equine therapy and other outlets. For me, gardening is what keeps me grounded and I am curious how others may find that through gardening.”

Photos showing the progression of Eric’s garden, courtesy of Eric Muenks.

A look ahead

For some participants, this was a first experience at growing food, and safe preservation created another hurdle. UF/IFAS continued their education with food preservation workshops that taught 200 participants how to safely store the produce they grew.

“Many of the participants were concerned about the future availability of food and wanted current recommendations about storing their food safely,” said LuAnn Duncan, UF/IFAS Extension Sumter county food systems agent. “We had a participant that had already preserved food in an unsafe way. It was unfortunately that the food had to be discarded, but thankfully her family did not eat it and become seriously ill. Many reported eating more vegetables and that is something we love to see.”

While the victory gardens program was designed to support through lockdowns and the early stages of COVID-19, registration is still available for new participants. Online modules are free and participation includes engagement with the online victory gardens community. Additional gardening programs take place at UF/IFAS Extension offices around the state. Locate your local UF/IFAS Extension office to get involved in a program near you.