JoCo on the Go Podcast: Growing good food for a good cause

On JoCo on the Go, episode #141, learn all about the WIC community garden – a partnership between the Johnson County K-State Extension Office and the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. Roll up your sleeves and dig in the dirt for a good cause. Volunteers can join weekly harvesting events to benefit families in need within the community. Volunteers also pick up a few tips along the way to improve their own gardens.

JoCo on the Go Webcast: Growing good food for a good cause

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Time Subject
00:28 Introduction
03:33 What is the WIC program?
07:44 How volunteers got involved in the program
12:54 Tour of the WIC garden
23:45 About the farmers market
28:32 Produce by the numbers
32:56 How you can get involved




Theresa Freed 0:00 

Helping Johnson County families in need access healthy affordable foods can be a challenge. On this episode, learn about an excellent resource to do just that.

Announcer 0:11 

Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed 0:25 

Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host Theresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County Government. Buying fresh produce at the grocery store can be tough, especially if you're on a really tight budget. But all families should have access to healthy foods. And that's the idea behind the WIC garden. It's located on the Sunset Campus in Olathe. And here to talk more about that, we have with us a program administrator and a couple of volunteers who regularly roll up their sleeves, dig in the dirt and help harvest food. So let's start with Zach, and Zach, if you want to introduce yourself and then our volunteers.

Zach Hoppenstedt 1:00 

Yeah, thanks, Theresa. My name is Zach Hoppenstedt, and I'm a horticulture extension agent with the county K-State Research and Extension Office. We're located at the county government plaza here at 119th and Ridgeview. And in addition to providing education around fruit and vegetable production for our county, both for backyard gardeners and for our budding fruit and vegetable industry that we do have. In terms of commercial production, one of my favorite projects is the oversight and sort of day-to-day management of our WIC community garden, which, like you said, is a resource originally dedicated to providing supplemental nutrition support to the families receiving the WIC services to our county health department, and has now kind of evolved into a more broad program, supporting food insecurity that exists throughout the county, providing fresh fruits and vegetables from a quarter-acre demonstration urban farm garden space that's nestled right in between the health department and the Sunset county government building.

Theresa Freed 2:18 

Alright, and then if you want to introduce our volunteers, or they can introduce themselves, however you want to do that.

Zach Hoppenstedt 2:23 

I'll just say I handpicked some of my best volunteers and most ready for radio and video. And Samantha Murphy and Linda Featherston, who have been with the program actually longer than I have. The program's been around for more than seven years. And both Linda and Samantha have really been involved since very early on, and are part of the cadre of community volunteers that help maintain and operate the program. And I wouldn't be able to do it without people like Samantha and Linda, who drop in every Tuesday morning, 8 to 11 a.m., essential March through November.

Samantha Murphy 3:06 

I've been a part of the garden for I guess, almost five years or so off and on now. So it's been a fun time being a part of it.

Linda Featherston 3:17 

Hi, I'm Linda Featherston. This is my fifth summer in the garden. I'm a piano teacher and a state rep in my real life. And I've really found my time in the garden to be rewarding and ways to help out the community and also really educational.

Theresa Freed 3:33 

That's terrific. Okay, well thank you all for joining us today. So first, I want to talk about what the WIC program is. So Zach, can you kind of define that for us a little bit?

Zach Hoppenstedt 3:43 

Yeah, and unfortunately, our partners over at the WIC program weren't available today. But in oversight of this program for four years, I've become more and more familiar. You know, the WIC program, the acronym stands for women, infants and children. Essentially, it's a supplemental nutrition program for mothers and families that may have limited resources or limited budget when it comes to, you know, the food needs for their household, and they receive a lot of wraparound services for child nutrition, maternal health, and it's a really excellent program. It's a national program administered by USDA. And, you know, every county in the state of Kansas, you know, operates a WIC program and Johnson County has obviously one of the larger programs. You know, there are some dollars in the form of benefits that participants can use to purchase groceries from, you know, your typical grocery store. But typically, that's not really enough to meet the nutritional needs for the families that participate in program. And so the idea for the garden many years ago was, could there be essentially a green space, a garden space that would serve clients in the program, teach them some gardening skills, as well as essentially be a production space where we could generate enough produce to really, you know, make a significant contribution to the households that are participating in the Johnson County WIC program in terms of supplying fresh fruits and vegetables.

Theresa Freed 5:35 

And I think a lot of people don't necessarily think of Johnson County as having a lot of people within our community who rely on WIC and access to things like food pantries and the garden. So can you talk a little bit about what that need looks like here in Johnson County?

Zach Hoppenstedt 5:53 

Yeah, I mean, it's significant. And it is definitely more than what most folks typically imagine when they think about Johnson County and the influence that we definitely do have in the county, but definitely major significant needs, and families that rely on donations and food pantry services. And like I said, the WIC program, in terms of the dollars that go to the families, it's a help, but it doesn't go all the way to meet the needs and what we know families need in terms of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And beyond that, you know, the garden, like I said, has sort of tried to expand to meet the need that exists even beyond the WIC program and those families that are going to pantries, especially in the Olathe area where we're located. And during COVID, you know, there was more and more families that were relying on these local pantries, places like Catholic Charities and Salvation Army and many others that we've partnered with over the past couple of years to expand the reach of the garden and the produce where it goes to get it to more people throughout throughout our area here. And really, you know, we'll talk more about this, just trying to increase the outreach, the awareness and our clientele and letting more people know that this resource exists. And it's not just for WIC clients, they continue to be one of our primary clienteles. But we're hopeful to, you know, serve the broader need that does exist.

Theresa Freed 7:44 

Alright, that's great information. Back to our volunteers. If you just want to talk a little bit more about, you know, why you got started doing this and what you get out of it. So we'll start with Linda.

Linda Featherston 7:56 

In 2018, I saw an ad on Facebook of all places to come help out in the WIC garden. And I'm a firm believer in trying to make the world a better place. And sometimes you have to start from a very small square, which is your own community. And then that can grow to bigger things. But you know, I still had children at my house at the time. But Tuesday mornings, were a great time for me to be able to get away and not interfere with their activities or my work schedule. So that's why I was in the garden.

Theresa Freed 8:28 

Alright. And so you talked about some of the education that you receive there. So can you talk about that?

Linda Featherston 8:36 

Well sure, you know, we plant all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And I always say when we have new people in, like, find a question to ask Zach about something because you have never seen more enthusiastic teaching than when you ask an extension agent, like, about a product, like how long will it take to grow this? What will it do, and they are just here to educate. And it's so exciting just to watch them in action.

Theresa Freed 9:04 

I will totally agree with you on that. I've visited the garden a couple of times, and we'll cut out here in a second to get a quick tour with Zach. But there's definitely a level of enthusiasm. They are very passionate about the work they get to do, and I know that volunteers are passionate as well. So Samantha, do you want to talk about your experience with the WIC garden?

Samantha Murphy 9:28 

Sure. Well, like I said, I got involved about five years ago. That was about the time that...I have a background in horticulture. I grew up on a farm in Iowa and I went to Iowa State in horticulture and agronomy. So I have a little bit of knowledge about horticulture. But I'm a stay at home mom and about that time I had a three year old, and we were looking for ways that I could get involved with the community and involved in a way that I could help out because that's what I'm good: horticulture. So it was also convenient because I could bring my daughter with me. We originally got involved in the Olathe community gardens, and through through that found out about the WIC garden. And once we got involved, it was just a lot of fun and, like Linda was saying, a great way to share knowledge. I mean, I have a background in horticulture, but so many volunteers don't. So I mean, we share information, and it's a very positive group of volunteers out there. And we have a great time, and I've been having a great time, the last five years now. I have two daughters that I bring out there with me. It's been a good way to help them get in touch with, you know, where their food comes from. And it's also fun to see what clients come out because it's kind of like, you know, maybe I'm in a little bit better situation, but they're not so different from us, you know? It's like my kids play with their kids to come and visit and it's a great way to connect, I think, as a community over food.

Theresa Freed 11:06 

Yeah, definitely. I think, you know, that's an invaluable kind of lesson to be able to teach to young children, and they grew up appreciating where their food comes from, but also appreciating the value of volunteering and helping others in your community. So I think that's really, really awesome. What would be a message you have for other people in the community? Like you said, maybe they have some experience planting it, like, we have a pot of tomatoes in our backyard, but that's about it. So people who have kind of limited experience with growing food. You know, what would you say to them, and encourage them to come out and help out?

Samantha Murphy 11:47 

I would say there is no limit to...I mean, even if you've not touched a plant in your life and you think you kill plants. We love to help people out and educate people. So many volunteers come in, they're like, I don't know what to do. But like I say, between Zach and I try to help out as much as I can. I mean, we'll hand you a shovel and show you what to do and no one judges or anything. Everybody's really welcoming. And so it's a great place to learn and help out. And it's just a really positive network of people out there.

Theresa Freed 12:20 

Alright. Linda, anything to add to that?

Linda Featherston 12:22 

Even if you only have an hour a week to give, we're certainly welcoming as anybody who wants to come for any amount of time and really no experience or skill necessary at all.

Theresa Freed 12:35 

Alright, and you guys supply the tools, and, you know, all that good stuff, right? You just need to have the the will and you guys provide the way, right?

Samantha Murphy 12:45 

Exactly. And even like I say, I bring my my girls with me. So it's like, you know, not a lot of volunteer opportunities let you bring your kids with you, so it works out.

Theresa Freed 12:54 

Yeah, that's awesome. Alright. So as I mentioned, I got a chance to catch up with Zach in the garden. And here's a look at our tour of the space.

Zach Hoppenstedt 13:04 

Welcome to the WIC garden and fun to have you out here virtually. But, you know, we're kind of in the middle of peak summer production. Some beds that have recently been harvested where we've got things that we've just seeded germinating, coming on, and some things are a little more mature, things that we'll be harvesting for the farmers market coming up on Thursday. And so I'll walk you around now if you just want to come with me. So mixed vegetables. This time of year, we're thinking of things in the nightshade family like peppers, tomatoes we'll get to in a second. So we'll have lots of these sweet Italian frying peppers. These are called Cubanelle peppers or bull's horn peppers. But that's a really delicious little treat that we like, lots of nice snacking. Good-sized bell peppers here actually that we'll have at the farmers market on Thursday, and of course everything that doesn't leave at the market goes for donation at the pantry, and and hopefully it'll be kind of our inaugural run with our new refrigeration unit in the Health Department lobby. Some spicier stuff. This is a pepper I'm kind of actually excited about right here. Kind of looks like a habanero or a hot chili but it's called an Aji Rico, and it's very mild. It's like a hybrid pepper. It's sweet. And it has, like, a little bit of spice. Snacking pepper. It has like this very citrusy pineapple flavor with it. So we're really excited. We're going to have a lot of peppers at the market, obviously, some leafy greens, kale and I believe our master food volunteers are going to be doing some kale smoothies. So a nice cold, refreshing smoothie that will have free samples at the farmers market tomorrow. Lots of herbs. Obviously our basil is, like, out of control right now. So we're really hopeful folks want to come and harvest some basil, jalapenos, tons of jalapeno peppers, if you can see in there. I mean, that's the main one right there. But it's going to be like a pepper festival tomorrow. Lots of sweet potatoes. So hang out with us, come back in September, we'll be harvesting hundreds of pounds of sweet potatoes. And that's one of our favorite crops here in the garden. But yeah, you know, crop by crop, lots of sweet corn that's starting to come up. This is kind of our second round of sweet corn. We plant this a little bit later, and we get one more harvest around the end of September, and it kind of adds some nice dimension architecture to the space when these corn stalks get really large. It's kind of fun to be walking through them and you kind of feel like you're in a miniature maze out here. In the background, you can see we have more than 20 fruit tree varieties. Mostly apples. Apples will be coming on here in the next couple of weeks. Some of our pears are already ready to go and a few peaches. So a mix of some of our annual vegetables as well as perennial tree fruit.

The last of our little leaks, and actually that bed's been planted too. We're gonna get a second round of Irish potatoes, which are just kind of your your non-sweet potato potato. We always add like, in some years we always do cut flowers. This year we included a row of Zinnias. This is a small, multicolor Zinnia. And this is really nice as a cut flower. So I imagine we'll probably do some cut flower bouquets for the market. But that's something we just kind of do for ornamental value. Few other perennial crops that we have. Strawberries, so we have some day neutral or ever bearing strawberry. So at the farmers market tomorrow, folks will be able to come out and pick strawberries. And there's a few here, like, and I always tell my volunteers to make sure that they, you know, enjoy a few while they're out here working. That's just quality control, you know? Another row sweet potatoes. Our tomatoes, two 60-foot rows of tomatoes. We harvested a lot yesterday that are in storage for the farmers market on Thursday. And we call this the California or the Florida stake and weave, it depends on how close you are to either coast. With us being right in the middle, sometimes we use the term interchangeably. But, you know, we try to demonstrate some techniques that small growers might use who are growing for market commercial producers. The idea is that we serve, like, such a diverse clientele, folks that maybe are just getting into gardening or maybe some folks that are interested in getting into it professionally. That the garden space here sort of serves all clientele and it is educational for all different types of groups. So I think we got a few tomatoes coming on that we haven't still harvested when you pull back some of these vines here. Some nice kind of smaller, like, cocktail tomatoes, and this one will ripen up really nice. And this has some cool kind of variegated coloring on the shoulders there. I like these quite a bit. A second round of tomatoes that were interplanted into a bed of carrots that we did this spring, so hopefully we'll harvest the rest of our carrots tomorrow and then give these tomatoes some space to to get big. But we try to maximize all the space that we have. And sometimes that means having to plant things into each other. There's a nice good one here. And when we get these all washed up, they look real great. So down here, you can see some of our apples. And I'm starting to accumulate quite a bag of groceries here. But a few couple of varieties of apples. You know, we're usually looking for the color here, that's called the background color. So these are all red apples. But we're usually looking for this background green to turn a little bit more yellow before these are ready to harvest. That's usually your best indicator with a lot of the palm fruit, apples and pears, is when that background color starts to get a little bit more pale green, light yellow. And usually, if you just just pull on them ever so slightly, when they're ripe, they'll come off. But we definitely have folks that come and visit the garden and are seeing all these apples are are trying them a little hard or early right now. And they kind of pucker up when they try them. So they're still a little tart. And they need a couple more weeks before they'll be ready to harvest. But I imagine we'll have some for the upcoming farmers market in September. Some Asian pears over here. And these are pretty much ready. This is a first-year tree. But these are kind of a small Asian pear, which some people... It has kind of a rough skin here, but the inside is so crisp and juicy. Really sweet. So we'll have some new picked Asian pears tomorrow.

And back here, we're starting to trellis for our cucumbers. We've got more strawberries. And our strawberry production will really usually be late May, early June. Have our trellising setup for for another crop of cucumbers. So we'll have cucumbers going into fall. Sweet potatoes, our blackberry planting. We're finishing up a pretty interesting little trellis project here. So we'll be able to manage the canes a little bit better. But you can see some of our blackberry varieties actually flower and fruit two times in the year. So you're already getting a second flowering, late summer. And then if you walk down the row here, you can see some fruitlets that are just starting to ripen. So we get another second little flush of blackberries, although our biggest harvest is usually earlier in the year. So, you know, this is our quarter acre green space here. And we've got 14 beds where we're doing the these 50-foot rows, 60-foot rows, the 20 fruit trees, and we're growing all the time and trying to squeeze more and more into here. So this is the space that you'll come to if you drop in at one of our volunteer workdays, 8-11, Tuesday mornings 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. And obviously, we have all the tools and gear that you need, and you just get to be a part of sort of our weekly maintenance of the garden and production planning. So you can stop in once, you can come every week, the whole season, we love to have a bit of both. And it's always nice to see new faces out here. So I hope you see this podcast, see the video today and get a chance to come out and visit us. We'd like to have you out here at the garden.

Theresa Freed 23:45 

So as you can see there, there's a great variety of produce and all available for individuals in our community. And we'll have more information about how you can access the garden and its resources in the show notes of this episode. So another thing connected to the garden is farmers markets. And that's pretty new. So Zach, do you want to tell us about that?

Zach Hoppenstedt 24:09 

Yeah, so starting kind of halfway through the season last year, we were, you know, coming out of the pandemic and trying to get more engagement and get more outreach and also try to think of, you know, a sustainable budget for the garden because there is a cost that goes into managing the garden. And we're lucky to have the support from the county Department of Health and and and the K-State Research and Extension Office. But thinking more long term and improvements to infrastructure and and more plantings and growing in terms of possibly our size and the types of crops that we're able to grow and what it takes and the costs associated, thought, "Well could we have a sort of event that would be like maybe a fundraiser but also just be kind of like a, you know, free activity that people could come to? " And we had always, at the Extension Office, done recipe testing with our extension master food volunteers, which are really a great group of many volunteers that we have that participate through the K-State programs, but that are very focused on culinary and teaching people nutrition and healthy cooking techniques. And how could we, you know, bring them in and highlight seasonal produce that was available at the garden? You know, get more county staff as well as the local community out to the garden a couple of times during the growing season. And we said, let's do this, let's try to do these farmers market events. We call them pop-up farmers markets, and they started extremely basic and have kind of grown in terms of the scope and the offerings each time we do them. But they're held on site, you know, right on the east side of the Health Services Building, which is 11875 South Sunset Drive. Sometimes, folks have a hard time finding us because of how we're nestled in the kind of hills that overlap the sides of the parking lot. But so we just set up several tents there and create some shade, and we turn on a little bit of music and we set up a farmers market stand and, you know, tables for people to come out and have their lunch. The master food volunteers are there serving recipes and sharing recipes that are relevant to what we're growing in the garden at the time. You know, I like to say, like, you know, there's a suggested donation on produce, and some people from the community love to come, and they treat it just like they would going to the farmers market, and they try to get all the produce that they need for the week. And then we also have families that come and that essentially get a donated produce package. No one leaves empty handed. No one's refused based on their ability to pay. So it's serve yourself. And it's essentially just, you know, a way for our volunteers also to showcase the garden and to celebrate all the hard work that they've put in. And kind of back to Sam's point about how much we enjoy, we love when she brings Zoey and Carly, her two daughters and how there's, you know, this socializing that's happening in between with clients and, you know, people in the community that may have more resources. The farmers market is kind of also emblematic of, you know, there's people that come, and there's this local organic produce and, you know, they're paying a premium dollar and donating to the garden, and they're so happy to buy produce that they can go home and cook. And that same exact produce is being donated and given free to families that don't have the resources. So there's not like a different product that goes to one versus the other. And I think that there's something special about that. And just, we really do try to hold ourselves to a high standard in terms of what we put out, what we take to the pantries, what we donate. We want it to be just as good as anything that you would see in the grocery store, or what you would expect someone to pay for it at a farmers market. And so that's the idea.

Theresa Freed 28:32 

So obviously, you take a lot of pride in the work that you all are doing out there. Can you talk about any numbers in terms of what you're producing?

Zach Hoppenstedt 28:41 

Yeah, on average over the seven years plus that we've been doing this, we usually fall somewhere in between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of produce every year that comes out of this quarter-acre garden space. That's a mix of tree fruit, annual vegetables, and I will say, you know, things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, those bigger items help us hit that poundage number. But onions, things like that. And so yeah, we really try to, you know, the K-State Extension service has several demonstration gardens throughout the county that focus on edible crops. And I highly recommend the audience go out, and maybe we can provide a link on the website so that people can can go and visit more of our master gardeners' demonstration gardens. The thing that's unique about the WIC garden is it's really focused on maxing production, trying to create a real dent in the need for fresh produce in our community. And so it's kind of managed more like a small farm than a display garden or the typical community garden, because we're really trying to hit, you know, a higher poundage, if you will.

Theresa Freed 30:05 

Alright. And fresh produce can be a little bit tricky because it doesn't last very long. I mean, I've been doing my research about, like, strawberries I've heard, like, canning them will make them last, like, months. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm willing to explore that. So I know you guys, that's a consideration for you as well. How do we increase the shelf life of of some of the things that we're producing? So can you talk about this new resource that you all are getting that will help with that?

Zach Hoppenstedt 30:35 

Yeah, for really the longest time the garden has operated without really any cold storage. And just as much, I would say, knowledge from the horticulture perspective that goes into producing quality fruits and vegetables, you can spend as much time studying and learning about how to store those products as well. Some of it's common sense, and, you know, just having refrigeration, which is this new phase to the program. And we're excited that we recently got some support from AdventHealth and from Department of Health annual budget to purchase a commercial refrigeration unit that we've just received recently, and has been set up inside the lobby of the health services building, or the Health Department, waiting room or lobby area. And essentially, we're very hopeful. And we're in the process of essentially creating what's going to be like a pantry nook that exists inside the health services building in the lobby, where anyone that comes into the Health Department to access services will essentially be able to serve themselves access fresh produce. And we're hopeful that we'll have product in there on a fairly regular basis moving forward. Instead of, unfortunately, and really I shouldn't say unfortunately, but so often, because of the lack of refrigeration on site, we really relied on having to take a lot of the produce outside the garden to local pantries. But we're excited to be able to have more of a direct connection with the end user on the product. And I really do think that that's going to give us more opportunity to provide better education, partially through our master food volunteers so that when clients do come in on occasion, we're hopeful that we're going to be able to have a staff or a volunteer person in the lobby, with nutritional information and recipes for the products that are available. And yeah, just hopefully, the produce is being used more fully, and that the clientele have a better understanding of what to do with it. And in ultimately, you know, use it and enjoy it.

Theresa Freed 32:56 

Alright, that's great information. And just last question. How do our listeners get involved? How do they volunteer?

Zach Hoppenstedt 33:03 

Yeah, so I will say, just quickly on the farmers market event. That farmers market event is going to be Thursday. I think we're going to try to get this out today, Wednesday. Our next one is going to be September, second Thursday of September, which I think is the eighth. So this next one is August 11. And then we'll do one last one September 8, I believe. And those are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those are on Thursdays. And I will also mention that this August, we're celebrating National Breastfeeding Awareness Month with the Johnson County Breastfeeding Coalition. And so they'll be set up and be providing resources on maternal nutrition and showcasing their outdoor nurture nook, which is a really cool setup that they have for, basically, breastfeeding at public events and a really cool setup that they have, and lots of educational information from them. So we're excited. They're going to be partnering with us. And then every Tuesday, from really the beginning of March all the way to the end of October, folks can come to our drop-in volunteer days every Tuesday morning, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. We have a signup online. And we'll provide the website information I imagine. If you just Google K-State WIC garden, that's a good way to get to our signup. That just helps us know how many folks we're going to have. But really, like you said earlier, the best thing about this garden is you can come with absolutely no knowledge of gardening. You don't need to bring any tools and you can really get exposure to, you know, produce production at a level that I don't think most people would be able to necessarily access unless they lived or worked on a farm. And we're just lucky to be able to have a lot of the resources and tools for people to just come show up and then get their hands dirty and get a lot of experience with new new gardening and farming techniques. So yeah, these Thursday farmers market events, the one tomorrow as well as the one coming up in September, and then every Tuesday morning, 8 to 11 a.m. And you have an opportunity to come work with me, Samantha and Linda. We're there pretty regularly. I'll speak for myself but Linda and Sam are almost always there as well. So yeah, that's how you get involved.

Theresa Freed 35:45 

Alright, sounds good. And I will speak for the the produce that comes out of there. Last time I was there, I got a free basil plant, and I think we used it in our spaghetti last week. So good stuff. Well, thank you all for being here today and sharing this great information. We encourage volunteers to head on out and get their hands dirty and learn a few things about gardening. And again, we'll have the information about how to get involved in the show notes of this episode. And thanks for listening.

Announcer 36:17 

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Health and Environment
K-State Research and Extension