The days are finally warming up in Champaign, with blooming flowers and chirping birds reminding us that it is indeed early May. Moreover, warmer temperatures indicate that fresh, local vegetables and fruits are soon available in beautiful abundance. If you’re anything like me, you’re ready for just about any excuse to be outside after such a long winter. The Champaign Urbana Public Health District’s (CUPHD) Give Back Garden provides community members the perfect opportunity to be outside and give back to the community so that all can enjoy Mother Nature’s offerings. What could be better?

The CU Give Back Garden has been providing fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs to the community at no charge since 2012. The garden offers fresh, pesticide-free produce such as tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, cucumbers, squash, and raspberries, to name a few. Its bounties are provided to anyone who needs it; no questions asked, no limits or restrictions enforced. Emily Vezina is the WIC Program Coordinator and Nutritionist for the Public Health District, and one of her roles is overseeing the Give Back Garden. Her role includes buying seeds, creating newspaper pots (biodegradable pots to sell plants in), creating signs and advertising, organizing volunteers, and planting and raising seedlings. She also facilitates a yearly plant sale. 

Its operation relies on volunteers to help prepare beds, plant, weed, water, make paper pots for seedlings, harvest, prep the produce for distribution, rebuild garden beds, or even build or paint a fence. As such, volunteer gardeners and builders of all skill levels are welcome to participate. The activities will vary as the season progresses. Volunteers typically come from school or church groups, though anyone is welcome to volunteer their time as an individual or as a group. Volunteers should be prepared to get a little dirty and bring plenty of water bottles during the hot summer months.

Long-term volunteer and former intern of the Give Back Garden Jennifer Lotton finds the volunteer experience to be a serene and rewarding experience. “Gardening is one of my favorite things in life. I love getting my hands in the dirt and feeling the sun shine down on me; it is a peaceful sort of meditation. This garden offers an amazing opportunity to put my passion to good use- contributing to food and nutrition security in our community (fresh produce can be expensive and difficult to access).”

Volunteers weed and prepare garden beds for the 2017 Give Back Garden season. Jennifer Lotton on far right.

After harvest at peak ripeness, CUPHD weighs and keeps track of all produce in order to measure the outputs and community impact. Then, the produce is washed and placed in the lobby of the CUPHD office for visitors to take home with them. This process happens on a weekly basis. The garden’s goal is to provide high-quality produce, similar to what is offered in grocery stores.

Some of the 2017 harvests, offered for free in the CUPHD lobby (photo from Facebook).

Those interested in supporting this local grassroots initiative are in luck. This week only, the Give Back Garden is hosting their annual plant sale. Whatever is not planted in the garden this summer will be sold for a low price in the CUPHD lobby, for your garden at home. These plants are grown from seeds indoors under a grow light. All proceeds support the Give Back Garden.

The 2018 Annual Plant Sale, ongoing now through May 4th. All proceeds benefit the Give Back Garden (photo from Facebook).

Those interested in getting involved with the garden can go to www.c-uphd.org and apply as a volunteer or contact Valerie Koress at vkoress@c-uphd.org or 217-531-4324.

Thanks to Emily Vezina, WIC Program Coordinator and Nutritionist for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, and long-term volunteer and former intern of the Give Back Garden Jennifer Lotton for sharing insights on this initiative with me.