In the spring of 2007, a few IT employees at Blue Cross and Blue Shield persuaded executives to let them cultivate 1,600 square feet of lawn on the expansive Eagan corporate campus for a “community giving garden” to provide fresh vegetables and fruit for a local food shelf.

The next year, the gardeners were joined by several more, who helped double the size of the plot.

In addition to planting tomatoes, the volunteers planted a local trend that has spread to a couple dozen other businesses.

And the harvest, more than 10,000 pounds of produce from local corporate gardens, is good for recipient food shelves as well as employees.

“This has truly been a great experience,” said Magda Surrisi, a founder of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield garden and IT specialist. “It can be hot and sometimes difficult work, but it’s rewarding to see the plants grow into healthy food we can share with those in the community that need it the most.”

Susan Schuster, a community relations consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield and early champion of the project, said the company now has 65 people involved in the garden. “Some people go out every day and do something in the garden,” she said.

“The benefits are incredible and almost incalculable,” Schuster added. “Our network of corporate gardens produces more than 10,000 pounds a year of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, peas, kale, summer squash, strawberries.”

Blue Cross, which also provides up to 20 hours a year of paid time off for volunteer activities, benefits from appreciative employees who also are healthier for the exercise and community connection. Some employees also volunteer with a local food shelf and in its nutrition education programs.

The experience also has increased the bond among Blue Cross colleagues.

Entire business units have signed up to spend time together in the garden and share an experience away from their desks.

Over time, the Blue Cross garden bloomed into something bigger.

In addition to more than 500 Blue Cross employees engaged over the years, more than 20 companies have joined what has become a corporate-garden network in the Twin Cities, Schuster said.

She began holding twice-yearly garden summits for interested companies in 2010. One is scheduled in the spring to get folks started. And there’s another summit around the fall harvest. Tips, stories, seeds and successes are shared. The corporate crews connect on social media the rest of the year.

“We are always excited to hear how companies adapt this project to fit the needs of their community and abilities of their employees,” Schuster said.

The project brings together workers, supervisors and executives who otherwise might not work together or know each other.

“The community giving garden has become a part of the fabric of our culture,” Schuster said. “Employees have learned new leadership skills by participating in the garden and becoming its ambassadors. Another interesting benefit we have seen is how lines between management and staff are blurred, as everyone works together in the garden. That has built stronger employee connections.”

The final benefit is the ripple effect that the garden has in the community.

Some employees who previously had no connection with hunger programs have become steadfast food shelf volunteers in Eagan and other communities.

“We found a lot of food shelf recipients were not even clear about how to cook vegetables,” Schuster said. “We’ve gotten into coaching moms and cooking classes and one of our members joined a board of a food shelf. We’re now working on collaborations with Ramsey County and the city of Minneapolis on healthy foods initiatives. It ties into our health mission.”

When Blue Cross and Blue Shield began its garden, Schuster said food shelves often lacked refrigerators, and most food came out of a box. Over the last five years, local food shelves say more than half the food they distribute is fresh and perishable. The community gardens helped.

General Mills, Cargill, Thomson Reuters, C.H. Robinson, Retail Construction Services and a number of smaller companies have joined the corporate gardening effort that Blue Cross and Blue Shield started and promoted.

For instance, the garden at Eden Prairie-based C.H. Robinson produces more than 1,100 pounds of fresh produce a year, much of it going to the nearby nonprofit People Reaching Out to People, or PROP.

The Eden Prairie Human Rights and Diversity Commission several years ago honored C.H. Robinson, a provider of logistics and transportation services, for the food it grows for the families helped by PROP.