Union County garden grant program returns for fourth year

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders recently announced that all Union County schools with students in pre-K through 12th grade are eligible to apply for a 2020 UC Kids Dig In garden grant. The program supplies students with new educational and community service opportunities by having them build and tend gardens on school premises. This is the program’s fourth year.

The grants, which are worth a total of $56,000, are funded through the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund. All applicants meeting the established criteria will be considered, based upon completed application, previous awards, number of applications received and locations of communities served. Prior experience in gardening is not needed, as awardees will receive guidance from the grant administrator, Groundwork Elizabeth. To qualify, a school needs to commit to maintaining a garden on its grounds.

Students will learn how to grow sustainable food and think holistically about their food, their schools, their larger communities and the health of the planet.
“School gardens offer many opportunities for hands-on learning across a range of academic subjects,” said Freeholder Alexander Mirabella in a press release. “They also encourage students to learn about soil health, water conservation, pollinator preservation and other environmental topics related to gardening.”

According to Victoria Durbin-Drake, administrator of the Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, the grant program allocates funds for growing produce such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries, herbs and spices, as well as pollinator-attracting plants and plants for pest management. The grant does not cover ornamental plants or nonproducing gardens.

The grant includes prebudgeting packages, which help schools plan and build new gardens or improve existing ones. For example, schools can choose a prebudgeted award for four new raised-bed gardens, complete with soil, irrigation, tools, equipment, soil amendments, seedlings and provisions for educational programs. The package is valued at $1,250. The grant administrator will deliver supplies and coordinate construction of the garden beds with the awardee and its volunteers. The program offers up to five customizable options at different prices.

Starting this year, schools with established gardens can ask to switch out one or two of their existing beds for berry patches. This year will also see the creation of a cookbook comprising recipes submitted by grant recipients based on foods grown in their gardens.

“UC Kids Dig In received an enthusiastic response from the start,” said Christopher Hudak, vice chairman of the trust fund, in a press release. “This year we hope to attract even more participants. School gardens can be used to engage students in STEM topics and other subjects while providing healthy, inclusive outdoor activities.”

The UC Kids Dig In program was launched in 2017 as an initiative of Freeholder Sergio Granados, the current chairman of the trust fund. The number of grant recipients has steadily increased every year since, from 31 in the program’s first year to 61 in 2018 and 80 in 2019, according to Durbin Drake. A total of 172 grants have been issued so far.

“UC Kids Dig In teaches kids about growing their own healthy food options and empowers them to help those in need, by donating 30 percent of their harvest to benefit local food pantries and shelters,” Granados said in a press release. “The grants are relatively small in size but their impact on the Union County community is enormous.”

Each school decides where to donate 30 percent of their harvest, according to Durbin-Drake.
Schools can ask to grow whatever specific plants they like, as long as the grant administrator confirms that they are viable. The program’s overall harvest is diverse, featuring cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, watermelon, lettuces, tomatoes, herbs and more.

The submission deadline is Monday, March 20 at 5 p.m. Principals and educators who are interested in having their school apply for a grant can contact Durbin-Drake at vdurbin@ucnj.org or 908-558-2277.

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