NMSU programs collaborate in community garden projects

Give a person a nutritious meal and you will feed him for a day. Teach him about vegetable gardening you will feed him for life.

Statistically, New Mexicans face two barriers: poverty and people living in places considered a food desert. This contributes to the state’s national ranking—48th in hunger and food insecurity.

Two programs in the New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences—Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition and the Master Gardener program—are combining efforts to help limited resource New Mexicans learn to garden as a way to supplement their diets with fresh fruits and vegetables.

The collaboration began in June of 2017, with Sally Cassady joining the ICAN Program as a food systems specialist. While earning her master’s from the University of Arizona, she worked at the Tucson Village Farm where she re-discovered her connection with food.

“There is something magical about the process of planting a seed and then it becoming a plant that provides food,” Cassady said.

“We are excited to have Sally onboard to bring gardening education to adults across the state,” said Donna Sauter, director of NMSU’s ICAN Program. “We will be bringing Extension programing to a new audience in New Mexico.”

While Cassady’s focus is on adult gardening, she has introduced a youth curriculum, “Learn, Grow, Eat and Go,” to the ICAN nutrition educators who are using it to introduce basic plant science and nutrition education to students.

“With this curriculum, you can teach garden education in the classroom whether you have access to a garden or not,” Cassady said of the curriculum created by Texas A&M University’s AgLife Extension Service. “It is designed to help youth understand where food comes from.”

To introduce adults to gardening, Cassady is partnering with NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service specialists and the Master Gardener Program to develop demonstration and community gardens.

Cassady has selected Valencia and Torrance counties to begin the projects.

“These two counties are extreme opposites,” she said. “Valencia County is more urban and has a Master Gardener Program, as well as the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas where a demonstration garden is being established. There are also several community gardens in the county.”

Torrance County is rural with greater distances between residents. Cassady will be collaborating with the county Extension agents and existing community gardens to provide locations for people to learn about raising vegetables.

“We want to see what it will take to establish gardening in the more rural areas. Because of the distance between communities and residents, it may be backyard gardens instead of community gardens,” she said.

Cassady is working with Kelly White, state coordinator of the Master Gardener programs, to provide the six-lesson basic gardening curriculum, “Seed to Supper,” which was originally created by Oregon State University. Cassady is revising the curriculum to address the Southwest growing environment, and to implement the curriculum statewide.

Cassady wants to spark interest in gardening with a small project that eventually connects people with the Master Gardeners and the “Seed to Supper” curriculum.

“To do this, the ICAN nutrition educators are teaching a basic gardening lesson and providing an herb growing kit,” she said. “The idea is to build confidence by helping them successfully grow something and then move on to growing more challenging vegetables.”

“Oregon State also worked with the Master Gardeners to teach garden education to people when they come into the food bank,” Cassady said. “We are working to expand this concept for New Mexico.” Cassady plans to work with food banks as well as community agencies to provide the gardening classes.

New Mexico, Arizona, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky and Oregon are collaborating to evaluate the “Seed to Supper” curriculum.

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“I am working with so many amazing people to make this happen,” she said. “I’m working with Extension specialists, county agents and community partners. It will take everybody working together to make this happen.”