Ohioans grow their own food with victory gardens

Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Cathann Kress (left) and Brutus learn how to plant seeds.

Food insecurity is an issue that is exacerbated by strife. In crises, stress is put on the systems that feed people, often leaving many without enough to eat. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson began the victory gardens program, which asked Americans to grow their own food to support the war effort.

The program was a popular one and was used again during World War II. It resurfaced in Ohio more recently, said Pam Bennett, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a huge bump in gardening,” said Bennett, a horticulture educator for The Ohio State University Extension in Clark County. “People wanted to know how to grow vegetables. We got calls from people wanting help on how to do it, where to find seeds and so forth.”

Following a promotion of pandemic victory gardens in Kentucky, OSU Extension and the Ohio Department of Agriculture launched the Ohio Victory Gardens program in 2020 in eight counties. In four years, outreach has increased eight-fold and victory garden seed packs are now available each spring in 64 counties.

A large part of the program’s success can be attributed to OSU Extension’s established presence in Ohio, Bennett said.

“It’s easy for us to distribute because we are Extension. Boots are on the ground,” she said. “We’re already teaching, we’re already working with food banks, with community resources. So, we were connected with the resources to get the seeds to people.”

Many participants choose to donate some of their harvest to area food banks. And several counties dedicate community gardens solely to growing food for those who need it most, Bennett said.

“In Clark County, we have one large, 100,000-square-foot garden,” she said. “Our Master Gardener volunteers plant, maintain and harvest the produce. Then they take that down to the Second Harvest Food Bank on a weekly basis during the summer, sometimes even twice a week.”

These donations are part of Extension’s Grow Ohio program, in which Extension Master Gardener Volunteers grow produce for food banks. Last year, more than 85,000 pounds of produce was donated to local organizations.

Each county participating in the victory gardens program receives 300 seed packets – a mixture of lettuce, cucumber, carrot and sunflower seeds – meaning more than 19,000 packets are distributed. In addition to the seeds, Extension provides free gardening tips, as well as recipes and canning instructions. The university and the state have resources that are used to support the program, Bennett said.

“That’s what Extension does. We have family consumer science educators who specialize in how to use these foods,” she said. “A few counties also work with 4-H, which brings young people in as well. Collaborating just makes sense.”

Recipes are also provided to people picking up produce at the food banks. Some people aren’t comfortable working with fresh produce, Bennett said.

“Our family consumer science professionals come to the food bank and distribute recipes,” she said. “They do cooking demonstrations, tell people how to use things. Not everyone knows how to use a zucchini.”

Some people, however, are happy to see old favorites.

“We had a bunch of green tomatoes, and a guy came to the food bank for some,” she said. “He was doing cartwheels because he was going to have fried green tomatoes for the first time in years. His grandma made them when he was younger, but he didn’t have any.”

Bennett hopes the program can be expanded to all 88 of Ohio’s counties so more people can grow their own food. It’s easier than it seems, she said. People can garden in their yard, in containers, on their apartment balconies.

“Try it,” she said. “The seeds are free. You don’t have anything to lose.”

Most of the 2024 seeds have been distributed, but plans for next year will be shared on the victory garden website: https://u.osu.edu/ohiovictorygardens/sowing-the-seeds/.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Franny Lazarus
Ohio State News