ECC students help food-insecure classmates with garden plot
With food insecurity an issue for many, a group of Elgin Community College students are doing what they can to help their school community.
Members of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society have been growing vegetables at the Advocate Sherman Natural Prairie and Community Garden at the hospital campus in Elgin for about three years. The group also runs ECC's Spartan Pantry.
Monday, several members went out to pick fresh kale and squash while getting a visit from state Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat, and Advocate Sherman Hospital President Sheri De Shazo.
"In the midst of this pandemic we have found people who have never been hungry before needing to go to pantries," Castro said, after digging in and picking vegetables with the students. "It's amazing to see these students giving back and trying to help their classmates."
The 54-bed garden was created by the hospital in 2010 in partnership with the University of Illinois Extension and is available for employees and community members to grow their own fruits, flowers and vegetables without the use of chemicals.
"We know kids in college don't often put their nutritional health first, and a lot of times affordability is a challenge, so to ... have access to fresh vegetables and know how to actually grow them in a sustainable fashion is invaluable," said Advocate Sherman Hospital President Sheri De Shazo. "It's a great thing to have available for our community; food is medicine."
Since 2018, the master gardeners from the U of I Extension have donated nearly 1,000 pounds of fresh produce grown in their demonstration beds to the Spartan Pantry, in addition to what the students have grown.
Student Maria Perez said she only learned about the plot about a month ago when she took over as Phi Theta Kappa vice president. Now she's there every other day working the garden. "I know what it's like to need that help, especially when you're going to school," she said. "I've used food pantries myself, so being able to help other students that are in need, I love it."
The pantry serves an average of 30 students per day. They post pictures of the items they've harvested on their social media outlets and post signs throughout the school to let students know what they have available. Perez said she knows some students have trouble getting to the pantry while others are hesitant to use it for fear of being stigmatized, so they're working on a number of alternative distribution ideas, including curbside pickup, local delivery and evening pickup hours.
Amybeth Maurer, director of first year programs and student life at ECC, said many of the students who have worked at the plot over the years were gardening for the first time.
"It provides them an opportunity to learn about gardening, but also they feel good because we're offering these fruit and vegetables to our students who are in need and are food insecure," she said. "We're not just giving out cans and boxes, we're actually giving them things that are healthy and are grown by our own hands, so there's some pride in that."