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Garden City Harvest running strong, feeding Missoula after 25 years

More than two decades after being established, and despite a pandemic, Garden City Harvest is still feeding thousands of Missoula residents in one form or another. Gene Zosel, executive director, celebrates the opening of a new garden plot. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

In the mid-1990s, the federal government made cuts to food stamps and other subsidies offered to low-income families. In Missoula, residents were concerned about what it would mean for the local food bank, and how it would meet an expected increase in demand.

In response to the cuts, Garden City Harvest was established in 1996 with the intention of addressing issues of food insecurity in Missoula County. More than two decades later, and despite a pandemic, it’s still feeding thousands of Missoula residents in one form or another.

“The way that it started was there were two things that Garden City Harvest was going to do. One, we were going to grow food specifically for the food bank so they would have enough fresh food on their shelves for the increased clientele,” said Jean Zosel, the executive director of Garden City Harvest.

“The other thing we did was we started teaching people how to grow their own food if they were so inclined.”

This year will be the 25th anniversary of Garden City Harvest. For over two decades, the organization has helped address social justice and food insecurity in Missoula.

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the organization has been able to shift its structure to provide much-needed service throughout Missoula – a particularly notable feat as COVID has left so many economically insecure.

“To this day we still grow food for the food bank. So right now, we grow about 20,000 pounds of food a year for them,” Zosel said.

The organization has continued to make healthy, nutritious food accessible to those in the community despite economic or other barriers.

Besides the food bank, Garden City Harvest provides food for various different organizations in town including the Poverello Center, Mountain Home Montana, the Carol Graham Home, Recovery Center Missoula, Soft Landing and the All Nations Health Center.

In light of the many ways the pandemic lays bare the failures in our food system, many households and communities are turning to gardening as a way to build resilience. (Courtesy photo)

According to Zosel, as COVID was becoming an increasing concern, “it became really important to find safe ways to do what we do because we all immediately understood the importance of growing this food.”

With multiple sites, Garden City Harvest grows over 150,000 pounds of food each year. One way or another, it reaches around 20,000 Missoula community members. The organization has been committed to helping out despite the abnormal situation that COVID has brought about.

“The number one thing was that we needed to create a safe enough environment that we could grow this food and safely distribute it to people. And that we could also have community gardeners come and feel safe in growing their own food. I feel like we were successful,” Zosel said.

The community garden plots have seen a big surge in interest with an extended waiting list.

“We had a waiting list of 110 people wanting community garden plots with us. That was huge. Usually that list is about 30 or 40 people,” Zosel said.

Garden City Harvest has incorporated a scholarship program to make the community garden plots more affordable to low-income community members. They had more scholarship requests in 2019 than in “normal” years.

The scholarships work on a sliding scale depending on household income. Zosel estimates that about 70% of community gardeners received some sort of subsidy this past year.

Garden City Harvest also offered CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes on a sliding scale. Scholarships and subsidies have been provided to people during COVID so that the food is still affordable.

“We completely shifted it to a sliding scale once COVID kind of hit to make sure people could afford it that were already signed up for it,” Zosel said.

The income garnered from the sales of CSA boxes help Garden City Harvest continue to grow and donate food.

“I feel like we were able to pivot in a way that ensured we could still serve the community. I think the ways that we could help was to give people financial relief,” Zosel said.

Along with income from sales, Garden City Harvest is able to keep serving the community in the capacity that it does due to donations. They recently held a successful year-end fundraiser last month.

“This year we had set a goal to raise $80,000, which is the highest goal we had ever set. We hit 80,000 with 352 donors, which is great. So that’s the most donations,” Zosel said.

The outpouring of community support was a sign and confirmation that the Missoula community really wanted to help out if they could, Zosel believes.

“What it said to me was that if people could support, they really wanted to help this year. We saw that over and over this year, which was amazing,” Zosel said. “People had so much on their plates, but if they could help, they really wanted to. That was really heartwarming.”