Green Corn Project Empowers Communities to Grow Food

by Sheila Julson

During the late 1990s—a time when the term “food desert” was often met with a quizzical expression—friends Shannon Kemp and Dayna Connor attended a workshop about biointensive mini-farming. They became enthusiastic about how this organic agricultural system, designed to achieve high yields from a minimum area of land, could help underserved Central Texans have access to healthy food. In 1998, Kemp and Connor launched Green Corn Project, a nonprofit dedicated to making healthy food accessible to everyone through educational efforts, implementation and community organizing.

Green Corn Project, named in honor of a Creek Indian celebration, works with individuals, schools, women’s shelters and other groups to teach people gardening through hands-on efforts. Their initiatives include Seeds to Starts workshops and the organization’s spring and fall Dig-ins volunteer garden installation and maintenance events. The organization also hosts a Fall Festival fundraiser with food, beverages and music.

Green Corn Project’s next Dig-ins takes place March 2 through 31. On Saturday and Sunday mornings throughout March, volunteers and Dig-ins Leaders meet at a building on Rosewood Avenue in Austin, to gather supplies, compost and plants. Volunteers divide into teams and go out into individual sites where the recipients need a new garden installed or an existing garden cleaned up. Each volunteer team has five to 15 people.

Gardens can be either raised bed or in-ground style, and Green Corn Project provides compost, plants and seeds. “We then give the garden keepers some tools and information. A big part of the process is educating them on-site, and talking to them about maintenance, and how and why we did what we did,” explains Project Manager David Huebel.

March crops include tomatoes, peppers and eggplant grown from starts, and cucumbers and green beans from seed. For the cooler autumn season, recipients get cabbage, kale, collard greens, cauliflower, carrots and radishes. “We also try to plant what each individual gardener will eat,” says Huebel. “If someone doesn’t like eggplant, we won’t plant that.”

In 2018, Green Corn Project installed or worked in approximately 90 gardens. Huebel says for each season, the organization aims to install five to seven new gardens. Eligibility for garden installation or maintenance is based on need, such as limited access to good food, if they’re economically disadvantaged, or are elderly or disabled. All of the work is provided free to recipients.

Volunteers will follow up on new gardens for about three or four seasons, and if they’re successful, they will continue to supply plants, compost and seeds, and devote teams to new sites. Green Corn Project will also offer teams to recipients that are unable to perform the seasonal clean up. “It’s exciting to talk to the gardeners and hear that they’re enjoying the vegetables and sharing them with their neighbors and families,” affirms Huebel.

Green Corn Project’s Dig-ins Leader training prepares volunteers interested in becoming more involved with the organization to lead volunteer Dig-ins teams. Volunteer training is held in February leading up to the March Dig-ins, and in August to prepare for the September Dig-ins.

There are also Seeds to Starts workshops, which teach people how to start seeds for plants to use in the gardens. Participants begin by starting seeds in flats, and then learn how to transplant seedlings from flats to pots. The transplants are then used for the garden recipients.

In addition to the two big Dig-ins events, Green Corn Project also organizes smaller teams to do mini Dig-ins on shorter notice. “We may go to a school or an individual’s home on a weekend and do maintenance for a gardener who is having a little trouble or could use a hand with weeding,” Huebel says. “We go wherever the need might be.”

For more information, visit GreenCornProject.org.