A garden housed at Monroe County Community College serves two purposes.
The company is an immersive learning lab for local students. And the produce grown in his fields is donated to nonprofits in the region, providing locally grown food while highlighting the benefits of healthy eating.
A team of volunteers run the farm: Ned Birkey, Michigan State University Distinguished Agriculture Extension Instructor; Pete Loughney, Board Member of the River Raisin Institute; and Jacqueline Iannazzo-Corser, assistant college cooking professor and owner of the Public House restaurant.
“We’re trying to distribute products to people who don’t have access to a lot of fresh produce,” Loughney said.
The garden was installed at the college four years ago and was born out of discussions between Lougheny and Andy McCain, a member of the college’s agricultural science faculty who also sits on the Board of Trustees of the River Raisin Institute.
Loughney said McCain had approached him about the space on the college campus that could potentially be used for farming.
Loughney said the farm started with a single raised bed and grew quickly as local greenhouses donated plants to support the effort.
This year, the 12-acre farm helped donate over 3,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Monroe County Opportunity Program and Village Market, a grocery store operated by Oaks of Righteousness. Deliveries have taken place on a weekly basis for the past several months as produce has been harvested, according to Loughney.
The farm has been used to grow tomatoes, sunflowers, okra, collard greens, beans and many other products. His most recent harvest included acorn squash and butternut squash.
Anything done on the farm is the product of donated time, supplies or manpower, Birkey said, adding that the college benefit is a learning lab accessible to students.
Birkey said the college is unique in that it offers specific programs dedicated to agriculture and culinary studies. The goal of the farm is to better help these students understand how the two concepts interact, he added.
“Cooking students don’t always know what things are like on the farm, and agriculture students don’t always know what happens when food arrives in the kitchen,” Birkey said.
Birkey said the college was very gracious to donate the land for the farm, which the students use for courses such as entomology, horticulture, and biology.
“Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state, behind California,” Birkey said.
Loughney said there are several programs in the area designed to help people in need get food. Much of the battle is figuring out where and how to access these initiatives, he said.
“The reality is that the people of County Monroe are having trouble finding food, it’s because they don’t know where to go,” Loughney said. “This community has a lot of heart – people are happy to support those in need. … A number of health problems are directly linked to food (problems). … We see people who don’t understand the alternatives. Hope we provide an option for healthy eating.
There is a lot of value in seeing the process of product growth, said Iannazzo-Corser.
“You can see what it can become,” she said. “And this product – it can be developed into so many recipes.”
Educating people about the benefits of healthy eating and getting into the food supply chain is critical, said Iannazzo-Corser.
“You have to educate people to think outside the box or adopt a healthy eating mindset,” she said. “It helps when we bring it to them. “
She said people come to the village market to look for the fresh produce, adding that the demand continues to grow.
“We care about our community,” she said. “People don’t have to get on a bus or find someone else’s transportation to get to one of the (bigger) stores.”
Iannazzo-Corser helps prepare recipes that are distributed to the market. They often feature products grown on the farm.
“Some people have never learned to use fresh produce in the kitchen,” she said. “I show them how objects can be combined. “
Pastor Heather Boone of Oaks of Righteousness said MCCC chairman Kojo Quartey approached her to explain how the farm’s produce could be used to provide food to residents of Monroe’s Orchard East neighborhood.
The area is considered a food desert, she said, adding that no store in the area provided fresh produce or meat.
Last year, Boone unveiled the Sacred Oak Clinic, a free health center. It became evident that many health problems affecting the inhabitants of the region could be related to diet.
“Lack of access and exposure to healthy foods is a big problem,” she said. “The (partnership) with the MCCC farm is really good in bringing healthy food to people. … (The organizers) were really excited to be able to offer us locally grown produce.
The store operates on a non-profit basis. He buys food at cost, Boone said.
“We are selling at the lowest price,” she added. “We’re not making any money – we’re just trying to help people in the area. “
She said she hopes to continue working with the college farm, as customers from the market visit the center for the produce.
“The (volunteers) have responded to the needs of our community,” said Boone. “They planted things that they knew people would like and use. It has been a wonderful opportunity.
Loughney said the farm is in dire need of volunteers next year. Birkey said the volunteer-led effort is seeking grants to help with recruiting.
The team is also preparing for the next cycle of growth.
“We are already preparing for next year,” Birkey said. “It takes a whole year to go through a cycle. We’re at the end of a… it’s a bit of a slow process.
Jacqueline Iannazzo-Corser, an assistant college cooking professor and owner of the Public House restaurant, provided recipes at the village market using produce grown on the Monroe County Community College farm.
Here are two of those recipes that feature sunflowers.
Cold Vegan Sunflower Soup
- 1— 1 ½ Cucumber (1/4 half and 1/2 diced)
- 1 clove of garlic, pressed
- 3 oz. shelled raw sunflower seeds
- 1 – 1- ½ cups of water
- 1 lemon
- ¼ bunch of dill, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a blender, place the sunflower seeds, lemon juice, water, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix until the consistency is creamy. Pour into the blender bowl
- Add the cucumbers, garlic and dill.
- Mix and place in the refrigerator until chilled about 1 hour.
- 1 large edible sunflower head
- 1 cup of vegetable broth or water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a larger pot, place 1 cup of water with the sunflower head. Blanch the sunflower over medium heat for 8 minutes.
- Once the sunflower is balanced, transfer it to a frying pan with vegetable broth, adding salt and pepper. Cover the pot, then simmer until the sunflower bud is tender and is tender to cut.
- Cool the sunflower.
- Using a cutting board with a paring knife, remove the outer leaves, then scrape the flower petals from the inner part of the bud.
- Place the buds in a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until needed.