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DeKalb County Community Gardens adding orchard, ‘food forest’ to repertoire

DeKALB – Having more than 200 gardens that provide vegetables to people across DeKalb County wasn’t enough for Dan Kenney.

Neither was donating more than 16,000 pounds of vegetables to residents in need.

This year, Kenney and his prolific nonprofit organization, DeKalb County Community Gardens, will add a community orchard and “food forest” to provide fruit and nuts to DeKalb County while launching a project that encourages residents to start their own gardens.

By the end of the organization’s third growing season, Kenney hopes to donate more than 50,000 pounds of vegetables and provide county residents with greater access to locally grown food.

“It’s really about teaching people to fish, providing access to land, tools and food and educating them on how to grow, prepare and preserve their food,” Kenney said, referring to the proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Community Gardens is an organization aimed at ending hunger by providing a reliable source of food and teaching people how to grow their own food. Kenney, a retired teacher from Clinton Rosette Middle School, started the organization in 2011. Today it is supported by more than 300 volunteers and dozens of community partnerships.

The organization has expanded from 16 gardens in its first year to more than 40, which each contain 5-by-10-foot raised wooden garden beds. More than 200 raised beds dot the area, in locations such as DeKalb and Sycamore public schools, Golden Years Plaza and the Voluntary Action Center. The produce is donated to food pantries, senior centers and community meal sites.

Community Gardens is expanding vertically this year by starting an orchard at the Annie Glidden Outreach Garden near the DeKalb County government complex on Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb and a food forest at Old State Route 64 and Five Points Road, west of Sycamore. The latter is a space where the organization will plant root vegetables, bushes and trees to grow fruits and nuts. The organization is partnering with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District for the land and DeKalb High School and Northern
Illinois University to cultivate the two new edible parks.

“We wanted to increase the amount of fruit available to people in DeKalb County,” Kenney said. “We’re moving a long way with providing the vegetables, but there’s also a need to provide fresh fruit.”

Some trees will be planted this year, but it will be years before the organization can purchase and plant all the trees. Raspberry and blackberry bushes should produce a crop next year, Kenney said.

The organization also is fostering the desire for residents to grow their own food while using sustainable practices.

This year, the organization is pioneering seed libraries at the DeKalb and Sycamore Public Libraries. Starting on April 22, members of the community will be able to “check out” seeds to plant in their own gardens. In exchange, people will be asked to return the seeds they collect from the vegetables they grow in order to replenish the seed library from year-to-year.

Residents can choose from peas, tomatoes, pumpkins and other varieties of seeds.

Jesse Butz, the head of adult and information services for the Sycamore Public Library, said the seed library would match the burgeoning interests of library patrons.

“When I look at the trends in the books we’re checking out, there are lots of items about becoming more self-sufficient,” Butz said. “People are interested in being more sustainable.”

The organization is starting to piece together money to start a regional food hub, where farmers within a 150- to 200-mile radius would come to DeKalb to sell their products. The hub would also host a commercial kitchen and freezer.

Lisa Cummings, co-coach for Live Healthy DeKalb County, which partners with Kenney’s organization, said Community Gardens’ tremendous growth will help curb the 30 percent adult obesity rate in DeKalb County.

“We really want to see people eating healthy and eating locally grown food,” Cummings said. “We want them to grow their own food not only to be healthier but to be more sustainable.”

Kenney expects the weather will push back the time when vegetables can be planted in the gardens, the organization has partnered with DeKalb High School. By using the green house at the school, the organization has some sprouts already coming up that will be transplanted in May.

While the weather has slowed the planting process, it didn’t slow the planning.

“People ask me when I started getting ready,” Kenney said. “I’ve been getting ready since November. This is going to be a really exciting time.”

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