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Program Donates Vegetable Starts to Underserved Families

More than 250 underserved (and often food-insecure) Ithaca-area families have the opportunity to grow some of their own food with help from a Cornell University horticulture research program.

Horticulture professor Neil Mattson (center) and technician John Osborn (right) deliver transplants to childcare specialist Ruth Williams at Child Development Council of Central New York.
Image provided

It’s that time of year, when New York gardeners are bringing home tomato starts and other vegetables to transplant into their gardens.

This season, more than 250 underserved (and often food-insecure) Ithaca-area families once again will have the same opportunity to grow some of their own food thanks to the good will of a Cornell University horticulture research program that has grown close to 200,000 starts for them since 2014.

“We’ve been partners with the Tompkins Community Action’s (TCA) Victory Garden project,” said Neil Mattson, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science’s (SIPS) Horticulture Section. “Our research group donates a little time and greenhouse space to grow the transplants. Then TCA does the organization to distribute them to the families who otherwise might not have the wherewithal to have a backyard garden or grow a few pots of fresh vegetables.”

TCA also distributes donated seeds and helps out with supplies, 5-gallon buckets and soil for those who lack garden space and know-how when needed, said Mattson. This year, his group’s efforts expanded to include the Child Development Council of Central New York, which distributes plants to the childcare providers they work with to create small experiential-learning gardens for the children they care for.

“This year’s big crops included tomatoes, peppers, basil and cilantro,” said Kendra Hutchins, a research support specialist who manages Cornell’s annual flower trials. Hutchins has grown most of the transplants for donations for the last six years.

Recent data shows about 12 percent of Tompkins County’s residents are food insecure, Hutchins noted. 

“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this project and give back to our community,” she said. “It felt especially meaningful contributing to TCA’s efforts during the early days of COVID-19, when underserved members of our community were really struggling.”

“So many Americans lack access to fresh, tasty, nutritious vegetables,” added Mattson. “Supporting the gardening efforts of hundreds of families in the county so they can grow some of their own is immensely gratifying.”

Craig Cramer

Craig Cramer is a communications specialist in the School of Integrative Plant Science.