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DeKalb County Community Gardens grows from 16 to more than 40 sites

DeKALB – At the Golden Years Plaza in DeKalb, residents tend a garden that can supply about 50 to 60 residents with freshly-grown produce. 

Brian Allan, property manager for the low-income housing building, said the building was approached by a nonprofit group – the DeKalb County Community Gardens – to develop garden beds this year. Since then, the building has added six garden plots to benefit the residents, he said. 

“The biggest thing is that it gives fresh produce a lot of times when people can’t afford it,” Allan said.

DeKalb County Community Gardens is an organization dedicated to providing a reliable source of food and education for people interested in growing their own food. With the help of grants from DeKalb County Community Foundation, the Roberts Family Foundation, Live Healthy DeKalb, area banks and others, the organization has been in operation for more than a year. After starting with 16 garden locations throughout the county, it now has more than 40. 

At each of those gardens are multiple 5-foot by 10-foot plots. The organization, for instance, has established 50 garden plots with the Genoa Park District. 

The group’s mission extends beyond gardening, said Dan Kenney, who leads the organization.

“It has to do with access to fresh produce and access to land,” he said. 

While the gardens are blossoming across the county, the organization finds itself needing to set up signs to distinguish its locations.

Sheryl Nakonechny, who is part of the organization, said the group is currently seeking permits from the city of DeKalb to put up signs for a fundraising event Sept. 21. 

Because some of the gardens are on government property and the signs will last more than several weeks, the organization would have to pay $60 for each sign permit. Nakonechny said the nonprofit is considering an option to set up the signs for the fundraiser in September and paying $10 for each permit instead. 

At this point, the organization is considering only putting up eight signs because installing them at all gardens would be too big of a project this year, she said. 

The idea for the signs emerged from within the group’s “Art in the Garden” subgroup. The organization originally planned for children to decorate the signs. 

Kenney came up with the idea for the community gardens group while he was still a teacher at Clinton Rosette Middle School in 2006. He created a garden and gave away the produce to local food pantries. 

“I saw how important it was for them to have access to fresh produce because they didn’t have any opportunity to get them,” Kenney said.

Kenney grew up on a farm in southwestern Illinois. Although he’s no horticulturalist, he does have some experience with gardening. But the main reason he got into it was because he cared about people going hungry without access to food. He worked in the DeKalb School District 428 from 1994 until his retirement this year, and education has guided his community efforts. 

“I approached it from a educational point of view and community service point of view,” Kenney said of the community garden group. 

Although the organization focuses on giving people the ability to control their own food chain, it also gives food to local pantries, including Barb Food Mart, as well as food banks operated by Sycamore United Methodist Church and the New Hope Baptist Church in DeKalb. This year the organization has donated more than a ton of food, and last year their giveaways exceeded a ton as well. 

Larry Pringle, associate minister and head of the food pantry of the New Hope Baptist Church, said the church’s food pantry usually receives two tables full of fresh produce from the DeKalb County Community Gardens. The people who use the food pantry always look forward to the vegetables they provide, he said. 

“I think anything that will help people to eat who are hungry is a great thing,” Pringle said.

The DeKalb County Community Gardens is still seeking to expand its sites and work on creating a local food hub for processing in DeKalb, Kenney said. It also wants to create an agricultural center. Eventually, the group hopes to be self-sustaining, rather than dependent on grant funding.

“I just hope the DeKalb County Community Gardens continues ... for many more years,” Allan said. “It’s a great asset to the residents.” 

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