A visitor to White Bear Lake might wonder why so many raised garden beds dot the historic Ramsey County city.
More than 200 of the hip-high, lumber-and-soil beds have been assembled in the yards of modest suburban split-levels, on lavish lots overlooking the storied lake and on common spaces near churches, the library and a few businesses.
Each of the self-contained units, complete with rich black dirt and seedlings, was provided by Giving Gardens, a grass-roots nonprofit that aims to use fresh vegetables to address the often hidden hunger problem in the suburban community.
“I cling to the belief that average people long for authentic experiences that break through and give them a vehicle to do more,” said Giving Gardens founder Chris Harms.
Now in its second summer, Giving Gardens (giving gardensmn.org) asks volunteers who host a raised bed on their property to donate 51 percent of their harvest to a local food shelf or senior program. The rest can be used in their own kitchens.
The effort has garnered widespread support from local faith communities, civic groups and businesses. Lumberyards donated the wood, garden centers chipped in with seeds and volunteers built and delivered the raised gardens, each slightly larger than a twin bed.
“Our motto is ‘From our community, for our community.’ This isn’t traditional charity; we want our neighbors to know, we planted this with you in mind,” said Harms.
In its first year, participants donated more than 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other fresh vegetables. This summer, with experienced gardeners and more than twice the number of raised beds, that amount is expected to triple.
“I dropped off bags of the juiciest tomatoes you ever saw at the food shelf three or four times a week last summer,” said Rolf Lowenberg-Deboer, 39, who’s tending two Giving Gardens in his White Bear Lake yard.
Like others hosting raised beds, Lowenberg-Deboer is something of an evangelist for the program, calling it a positive for recipients and gardeners alike.
“We live in anxious times. Anyone who gets their hands in the soil will feel better about life,” he said. “And what’s not to love about sharing what you raise with someone who needs it?”
In fact, some White Bear Lake residents do need help covering food costs, especially when it comes to produce, which is often beyond a limited budget and may not be included in the staples provided by food banks.
Awareness of a growing need for healthful food spurred Harms, a 33-year-old father of four, to found the nonprofit. He said his eyes were opened to hunger in his community when he read “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” The book examines how the nation’s largest and fastest-growing population of poor people now live in the suburbs, which often lack services to support them.
“The suburbs traditionally attracted the middle class, but lower-income people have the same preferences for safety, decent schools, access to green space. Assumptions about who lives in suburbia are stuck in the 1960s and ’70s,” said Alan Berube, co-author of the book and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The notion of who is poor in suburbia is often equated with what poor people moved there — people who left the inner cities, immigrants,” Berube added. “What gets lost is a lot of poverty is present in long-standing populations hit by a changing economy.”
In White Bear Lake, almost one-third of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, one-fourth of area seniors have experienced food insecurity and more families rely on regular visits to the food shelf.
“White Bear Lake is incredibly diverse, socioeconomically speaking,” Harms said. “People perceive the affluence of the lakeshore, but we have a working-class backbone and some of our residents are still recovering from setbacks of the recession. You could live next door to someone like that and never know.”
With master’s degrees in both social work and business and a day job with Hennepin County assisting people with disabilities, Harms is well suited for his passion project.
Raised in Stillwater, the son of a stay-at-home mom and a father who created educational videos for the prison system, Harms was influenced by his older brother’s developmental disability.
“When you’re living with that kind of diversity in your home, you have a palette of experiences that other people don’t,” he said.
Harms was also inspired by time spent on his grandparents’ farm, where he helped carry crates of excess produce from their garden to the end of their driveway.
“In the morning, it would all be gone. We never knew who came and got it, but we knew we helped someone.”
Making a small contribution
Tara Jebens-Singh is looking forward to the tangy scent of dill that will soon fill a special display at the senior center that she runs. Older participants in the program will be able to help themselves to whatever fresh herbs and vegetables they want, with no screening or income guidelines required.
“It’s wonderful for our seniors to know their neighbors are intentionally growing for them. It shows them they’re valued,” said Jebens-Singh, president of the Consortium of Lake Area Senior Services, which serves older residents in White Bear Lake, Mahtomedi, Oakdale and North St. Paul.
“We see a need for nutritional support for our aging population,” she said. “It’s lovely that this comes to them right where they are.”
The community’s youngest residents are also doing their part.
Parent volunteer Sara Catrin Magnusson is in charge of Giving Gardens at White Bear Montessori, where her daughters are students.
Rather than using plants provided by Giving Gardens, Magnusson, 43, got a jump on the season, working with the children to start tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers and leeks indoors from seed while snow was still on the ground.
“There’s something magical about watching this little green thing grow into something that produces food. It gets kids excited to see where their vegetables come from,” she said.
The children in the school’s summer program will soon get the chance to eat their handiwork, snacking on cucumber slices while learning a hands-on lesson about sharing.
A volunteer board member for Giving Gardens, Magnusson dreams about rigging up grow lights to keep the gardens going and growing inside during the cold months.
“Children can experience being part of a movement, like Victory Gardens during World War II. They can see that they can do their part to help feed their family and their neighbors,” she said. “It’s a simple act but it’s empowering.”
Volunteers who donate vegetables don’t have one-on-one contact with recipients, but they do drop off their harvests at the local food shelf or senior center. Harms hopes that will expand their understanding of the hungry in their midst.
“We all have reasons not to do this. Me, I have a job, kids, every excuse to say I’m too busy. But if we can give a little bit of what we have, that challenges the self to get out of that bubble,” said Harms. “People want to contribute their little piece.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.