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The Magic of a Garden

Garden City Harvest offers edible exploration and a deepened connection to our world and each other

The farmer selects an onion from a freshly-harvested heap, telling whispering kindergarteners how this onion, just like the carrot they just tasted, was pulled from the ground this morning. She asks who would like a taste and—surprise!—multiple hands shoot up, then clamor for a chunk of sweet, raw onion. These kids are mesmerized by natural magic: a seed turns to sprout turns to thriving plant, turns to something to eat.

Some of these kids have never considered a vegetable apart from something nose-crinkling (or maybe even cringe-worthy) on their dinner plate: a must-eat-if-you-want-to-grow-big-and-strong required dinner faire. But to see it here, in its natural habitat is mind-altering, soul-tugging. So they try, maybe even enjoy, a farm-fresh onion.

Growing magic is the short story of Garden City Harvest, a Missoula organization that aims to connect people through local food production. Started in 1996 as a way to address the national food stamp crisis, Garden City Harvest teamed up with the Missoula Food Bank.

“There was a lot of canned goods on the shelves,” explained Genevieve Jessop Marsh, outreach and impact director. “Making fresh food accessible to all was a big priority. So, we said, ‘Let’s start a farm.’”

Those first farms—one on River Road and the PEAS Farm, located in the Rattlesnake—began Garden City Harvest’s mission to feed Missoula through community gardens. In the early 2000s, Judge John Larson sprouted the idea of youth court kids working off their sentences by working with GCH.

“Hard, humble work in the soil is a natural way to heal and grow,” Genevieve said.

It’s no secret that our food system can be complicated. The quest for locally-grown food is on the rise. Addressing food costs is of concern, especially for low-to moderate-income households. In 2022, GCH neighborhood farms distributed 128,715 pounds of food.

Whether through CSA shares, plots tended by individual and family gardeners, school gardens, or neighborhood farms, GCH comes in contact with over 20,000 Missoulians on an annual basis, which every interaction cementing the need for, and beauty of, local food production.

While founded out of—and to this day, committed to—a need to serve low-income Missoulians, Garden City Harvest also aims to help Missoula’s youth appreciate the growing lifestyle. Through a partnership with Missoula County Public Schools, every second grade class in Missoula participates in a Farmer in the Classroom program. Many kindergarten classes in Missoula tour the PEAS Farm.

“They get to taste local honey on Montana bread,” Genevieve explained. “It helps kids have a better sense of place: what grows here, what energy it takes to grow food. It’s transformative.”

School farm tours grew out of local interest and a graduate student’s willingness to start an educational program.

“It’s changed over the years, but one of the things that has never changed: on a field trip, the kids get to have field snacks. They hold out their hands, they taste fresh produce, and their eyes light up,” Genevieve said. “It’s fresh, from the ground.”

She tells the story of a young boy who’d tasted kale for the first time on a PEAS Farm tour, fell in love, and, upon seeing the GCH mobile market arrive in his neighborhood, raced up on his bike, plopped down his allowance, and asked for kale because he wanted to share the experience with his mom.

The miracle of gardening is magical, therapeutic, and logical. In eleven gardens across Missoula, 393 plots are offered for lease each summer, affording Missoula families with an opportunity to grow their own produce. The requirements are simple: apply for a plot (they’re so popular there’s a waitlist), plant at least 75 percent vegetables, and commit to organic farming practices.

Genevieve sees a wide swath of Missoulians enjoying and benefiting from the gardens: young couples, young families, retirees, and veterans to name a few. Over 67 percent do not have room to garden where they live and 87 percent report their monthly grocery bill lowered as a result of raising their own vegetables.

“Missoula has 11 community gardens all over town and serves 400 households. We provide the land, water, manure, tools, compost, educational resources, and staff to support a gardener’s success and enhance the experience,” said Emily Kern Swaffar, community gardens director. “When we grow and eat fresh local food together and spend time outside in nature, we grow together too—both personally and as a community.”

One couple, married in the early days of the pandemic, were delighted when a neighbor at their garden presented them with the first tomato of his crop as a wedding gift. Another family made some of their best friends through their garden efforts.

“A lot of what Garden City Harvest does is, of course, growing food, harvesting food. We all eat. It’s a connection to nature. It sustains us and makes us feel good,” Genevieve said. “The way it works—whether it’s conversations about how to grow the best tomato or in a school garden learning how pollinators and food go together, or around a table after a workshop—the feelings that are shared, that’s the ‘stuff.’ Food is a connection point. We want everyone to have a chance at that.”

For more information, check out Garden City Harvest at www.gardencityharvest.org.

"On a field trip, the kids get to have field snacks. They hold out their hands, they taste fresh produce, and their eyes light up,” Genevieve said. “It’s fresh, from the ground.”

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