New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill donates produce to South Worcester Neighborhood Center to fight food insecurity

The New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill is helping address food insecurity by growing fresh, nutritious produce.

The garden partners with South Worcester Neighborhood Center to donate fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs each week. Last month, the garden reached 400 pounds of produce harvested and donated this season, and in 2021 they were able to donate more than 1,000 pounds.

“There’s a concept in larger cities and towns where they’re food deserts. Fresh produce is hard to come by,” said Dawn Davies, formal gardens manager. “When you have a food pantry, what’s donated is hard goods and dry goods like peanut butter or bread, but you don’t have that fresh produce which is really important for a healthy diet.”

Davies explained that New England Botanic Garden has been donating produce from its vegetable garden for over two decades, but started specifically focusing on the local community in recent years.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they would donate to Rachel’s Table in Worcester, which would distribute the produce using their own volunteer drivers. However, during the pandemic, it became more difficult as there were fewer volunteers to pick up donations from the garden, so they began taking matters into their own hands and bringing it to SWNC themselves.

“This way, we can harvest same-day and, within hours of picking, bring it to the donation site,” she said. “We can donate lettuce, Swiss chard and kale that would wilt. In previous years, we would just have to compost stuff like that.”

In recent weeks, the garden has been able to donate figs, blueberries, raspberries and sweet Spanish onions.

“I was able to drop them off myself, and it was great to have that one-on-one talk with people there about the back history of the produce,” Davies said.

This year, the produce in the vegetable garden has an even deeper connection to history. Each year, Davies chooses a theme for what to plant in the garden, and this year’s theme is “Vegetable Origins.” The selection focuses on the interrelatedness of types of vegetables and where they come from. The garden boasts different colors of carrots and heirloom varieties of produce, as well as closely-related plants like broccoli and cauliflower.

“With heirlooms, people have saved seeds through generations from something that’s commercially produced, and they want to keep that particular food in production,” Davies said. “I like to sow stories. People are really interactive with the signage. They want to learn more because out of all the different plants, everybody can make a connection with food plants because they have to eat.”

She said that it is easy for anyone to use that connection to make a difference themselves. Volunteers at the garden range from some who have been there for 15 years and others who are new to vegetable gardening and want to learn more.

Even if someone isn’t able to volunteer, Davies encouraged anyone with the resources to do so to grow their own produce at home.

“Even if you’re a residential homeowner, it doesn’t take much to grow fresh produce and be able to donate that,” she said. “Especially in Worcester, there’s a fair amount of homelessness, and places like South Worcester Neighborhood Center really help people in need like that.”

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