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Soon, when families pick up food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, they’ll also get a Little Green Garden along with their groceries. The beginner gardening kit is about a foot tall and a foot wide and filled with produce such as potatoes and carrots. It’s part of an effort from the nonprofit Big Green and the publication Modern Farmer to get one million families gardening this year.
Big Green, cofounded by Kimbal Musk, outfits low-income schools with gardens to teach kids science through fruits and vegetables and give them access to healthier food. When the pandemic forced schools to shut down, families started asking if they could still use the gardens, and that prompted the nonprofit to trial a home garden program, with garden kits and an at-home learning curriculum.
Then Musk connected with Frank Giustra, owner of Modern Farmer magazine, who also noticed a surge in at-home gardening interest. “When COVID hit, we saw an unprecedented spike in people looking at how to garden,” he says. “That gave us the idea to come up with the Million Gardens Movement.”Together, the two hope to get a million new gardeners growing at least some of their own food this year. The campaign will distribute garden kits, which are funded through donations (Musk and Giustra have put in initial funding themselves, but hope outside donations can get people around the country involved), and the project also includes a website full of tips on how to garden at home.
“One of our goals we had with our school gardens was to get our families gardening at home as well . . . but whenever we’d propose gardening, [we’d hear] they don’t have a backyard, they’re in an apartment, they don’t have the space for it, they don’t have the tools,” Musk says. “We were really listening hard to figure out how we could reach low-income families.” The Little Green Garden kits can fit on a fire escape or inside by a window, and they solve the added challenge of weather, because they can be put outside when it’s nice and brought in if the weather changes.
According to the National Garden Association, a garden that costs just $70 to plant could yield $600 worth of vegetables, and though the Little Green Gardens are smaller than that 20-foot-by-30-foot garden the NGA plots out, even a small garden can make a difference for families. “Most people think you need lots and lots of room to grow food, but you don’t,” Giustra says.
And they hope that a small change can make a big difference during the pandemic. One in four Americans says their families have skipped meals or relied on government food programs since the pandemic began, and COVID-19 infections are greater in Latino and Black communities, which also experience higher rates of food insecurity and tend to be in food deserts, where residents lack access to affordable and nutritious food.
“COVID has really revealed inequalities in society,” Musk says. “That’s a very powerful reason why this needs to happen, getting folks to garden at home. We’re not going to feed them for the year with potatoes, but we’re going to connect them to food—we’re going to connect them to what they’re eating. We’re going to give them a connection that might change their eating habits little by little a week, but it changes their lifestyle by a monstrous amount in years.” Giustra sees another impact too, from the mental health benefits of gardening, especially after at-home lockdowns and isolation. “What we’re doing here with this campaign is a way to heal America in more ways than one; heal their sanity, heal their souls, and heal their health,” he says.
The Little Green Gardens are meant to be just the start. Families who receive them will get three a year, outfitted with produce tied to the seasons—tomatoes in the summer, lettuce in the fall. But Musk and Giustra hope the kits can spur families to do more gardening at home, even planting seeds and turning to the Million Gardens Movement site for guidance beyond the garden kits. “The Little Green Garden is fantastic to solve friction and get people started,” Musk says, “but once they’ve started and the intimidation’s out of it . . . we will have, we hope, a nation and a community of folks that are really gardening.”