True Leaf Market has the opportunity to partner with Wasatch Community Gardens by providing seeds and in-kind donations to this difference-making organization in Salt Lake County. Annually, the programs and community events of WCG serve more than 8,000 people; approximately 50% of program participants are from low- and moderate-income households per federal standards. After taking a tour of their new Wasatch Community Gardens’ Campus, we thought it would be valuable to our readers to learn more about WCG and what they do. We asked the executive director of WCG, Georgina Griffith-Yates, a few questions and feel her responses are truly inspiring. We likewise hope to inspire our readers wherever they are to see the power of seeds and gardening in bringing people together and making the world a better place.
TLM: What are a few things WCG has learned over time, and as things have evolved, how have you maintained your focus on serving community members from all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, races, ages, and genders in Salt Lake County?
Griffith-Yates: WCG began in the mid 1980s as Wasatch Fish & Gardens Project – a pilot fish farming program of Crossroads Urban Center. Project coordinators recognized the opportunity to utilize vacant lots to help people grow fresh, nutritious food for themselves and their families, and they secured funding for tillers and a small farm tractor. In 1989, the organization was incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization, later renamed Wasatch Community Gardens.
In the 1990s, WCG expanded its community garden opportunities and began to offer youth garden programming and educational workshops. In 2011, we formed partnerships with Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County to start community gardens on City- and County-owned lands. We expanded our youth programming with the addition of summer camps (2011), a field trip program (2012), and a school garden program (2014). In 2016, we started our Job Training Program at the Green Phoenix Farm to provide employment, job training, and mentoring to women facing homelessness.
For many years, our organization dreamed of building an urban agriculture center that would provide a centralized space for our offices, gardens, and education programs. We strongly believed that prominent and inviting gardens and a teaching kitchen connected to our administrative home would allow us to more effectively connect people to each other and to their food through gardening, cooking, and sharing fresh and local produce.
By a great stroke of luck, in 2017, three parcels of land directly adjacent to our flagship Grateful Tomato Garden were listed for sale, and we were able to purchase the properties thanks to the generosity of several of our long-time donors. We were granted a necessary zone change in December 2018; as part of the approval, we were required by Salt Lake City to build replacement housing for the three residences that we were converting to commercial use.
After a multi-year capital campaign, we were able to meet our fundraising goal of $6.2 million; construction on the 1.2-acre Wasatch Community Gardens’ Campus commenced in 2020 and was completed in the fall of 2021. This transformative project embodies historic preservation and adaptive reuse, conservation of thriving open space in the heart of the Central City neighborhood, eight micro-units of affordable housing that achieves net zero energy use, and new and expanded indoor and outdoor garden and education spaces where we can educate, collaborate, inspire, and welcome all in the community to grow, eat, and prepare fresh, healthy, delicious food.
Throughout our history, strong community partnerships have helped us to reach community members from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, races, ages, and genders. Over time, we have seen the positive impacts of providing access to garden space, education, and healthy food to the adult and youth community members in our various programs. We have also come to understand that the community-building aspect of our work is equally important. We’ve seen again and again that using gardening and fresh, delicious food is one of the best ways to connect all kinds of different people and cultures. We have also learned that an effective way to engage more people in our work is to emphasize the fun in gardening and the enjoyment in eating fresh and delicious food and sharing it with others.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we successfully pivoted our programs and community events to virtual and “in a box” initiatives in order to keep program participants connected, learning, and engaged with growing and eating fresh, healthy food. We are planning to resume in-person programming at our new Campus in spring 2022. We anticipate that the new Campus will allow WCG to serve a larger, more diverse population and solidify our presence as a community-builder in Salt Lake City.
Mission and Purpose
TLM: Your Mission and Values page says “We envision a community where everyone values and has access to growing and eating healthy and delicious food.” What is the purpose and passion behind Wasatch Community Gardens?
Griffith-Yates: WCG seeks to serve all in our community with access to gardening and healthy food. As the cost of land and fresh food continues to rise in our region, our work has become even more vital as more people struggle to access affordable, healthy food for their households. Our work strives to find solutions for different groups of people – including students, refugees, Hispanic/Latinx community members, women facing homelessness, individuals with severe mental illness, and children and families living in poverty – to engage with the healthy food system and connect with one another through the shared language of fresh food.
TLM: Just checking out your website, it’s obvious that you have a lot going on. How do you do it all?
Griffith-Yates: Our community plays an extremely important role in WCG’s work - we wouldn’t be able to do all that we do without it! From volunteers to donors to program participants, we exist to serve our community - and we exist because of our community. We have also been intentionally growing the WCG team to build capacity and handle the load that having a central community Campus brings.
TLM: What programs does Wasatch Community Gardens offer?
Griffith-Yates: WCG accomplishes its mission through four main programs:
Community Garden Program: WCG helps community members grow their own organic produce by providing garden space, resources, and education. We manage 16 community gardens through partnerships with Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. 531 households, 60% of which are low- to moderate-income, grew their own food in a WCG garden in 2021. This includes 51 refugee families who participated through our partnership with the International Rescue Committee. We also provide leadership training, resources, and garden materials to independent garden projects. We have two new gardens coming this year, so keep an eye on our social media and newsletters for updates!
Community Education Program: WCG empowers community members with the skills, knowledge, and confidence they need to successfully grow and eat healthy, delicious food through classes and hands-on workshops and virtual learning opportunities. In 2021, we transitioned nine of our most popular in-person workshops to webinars, serving 334 community members. We also offered free garden coaching sessions via Facebook Live, attended by 209 individuals. This year look for workshops to be back in-person as well as online!
Through our Farm Fresh Program in partnership with Valley Behavioral Health, we provide low-income individuals with severe mental illness with access to organic produce. During the 2021 growing season, we provided fresh produce valued at $5,865 to 50 Valley Plaza residents each week.
Youth & School Garden Program: WCG connects children, teachers, and families to healthy, local food through hands-on, garden-based learning. The program includes weekly classes, field trips, and summer camps, as well as support for onsite school gardens. We engage the parents at the Title I schools in the program in gardening and healthy eating through Family Garden Club events, and we partner with Artes de México en Utah to offer a Sabores de Mi Patria (Flavors of My Homeland) bilingual workshop series. In 2021, we offered these programs as virtual and “in a box” initiatives, serving approximately 1,350 children and families. This year look for field trips, camps, and classes to be back in-person, COVID allowing.
Job Training Program: WCG provides farm-based employment, work readiness training, job placement assistance, and mentoring for women facing/experiencing homelessness at our Green Phoenix Farm. Through on-the-job training and weekly life and job skills workshops, the program helps participants develop new skills, cultivate strong work habits, develop key social and emotional skills, improve their health and well-being, secure housing and employment, and achieve other personal goals. We partner with Advantage Services to connect participants with available resources, including housing vouchers. In 2021, the program served 11 women, including two team leads (former participants); 88% of participants achieved stable housing and 78% had reliable employment after the program. Produce grown by participants is distributed to low-income individuals and families through partnerships with other community organizations. In 2021, approximately 2,134 community members benefited from these food donations.
We also host annual events to educate community members about gardening and healthy eating and build community, including the Spring Plant Sale, Urban Garden & Farm Tour, and Tomato Sandwich Party.
TLM: What are you most proud of that WCG does or accomplishes?
Griffith-Yates: In my short six months with WCG I have seen many accomplishments blossom from our programs, culture, and partnerships that I am truly proud of. A recent anecdote I would love to share took place at the end-of-the-season send off at our Green Phoenix Farm for the Green Team. As a reminder, our Green Team program provides farm-based employment, work readiness training, job placement assistance, and mentoring for women facing/experiencing homelessness at our Green Phoenix Farm. During this send off we heard stories of success, trials, challenges, and bonding in the garden. Our staff and amazing participants came together at the farm and reveled in the women's accomplishments while eating food they grew during their program tenure. Plants and people flourish in our gardens, we build healthy soil and strong community side-by-side; this is an accomplishment for which I will continue to be proud and grateful.
TLM: What is one of the most challenging things WCG has to overcome, and how do you overcome it?
Griffith-Yates: Working at the intersection of agriculture, sustainability, education, equity, and food justice, there are many challenges WCG works to overcome. One of the most challenging issues is continually adapting our own gardening practices as well as those practices in our curriculum to a changing global environment. This includes water scarcity, rising global temperatures, and decreasing air quality. As an organization, these issues dictate our gardening practices and what/how we teach.
There are two ways we continue to tackle this challenge: on a macro (community) and micro (practices) level. An example of how we tackle this on a macro level is by educating our community on the relationship between these ecological issues and sustainable gardening practices. On the micro level we look for practices to adopt ourselves that adapt to this changing environment. Some examples of these practices are the use of shade cloth, conservative watering methods, rainwater collection, and incorporating low-water vegetable cultivars.
TLM: Do you have any success stories you’d be willing to share about any gardeners or others who have benefited from Wasatch Community Gardens?
Griffith-Yates: Our success stories are best told directly by our program participants. Hear what some of them have to say!
From Leo, a participant in our 2020 Seeds of Success Job Training Program:
“My journey as a single mother has been rough but my life has truly changed, tremendously, thanks to Seeds of Success! I’ve learned to use my time more efficiently by planning and solving any problems ahead of time by communicating. I am grateful for this opportunity because I know I will have financial security and many other opportunities to grow within the healthcare field. One of my favorite parts of Seeds of Success is going to the Farm because it has taught me to care about my mental stability by managing ways to reflect and be aware of myself and the tools to achieve/maintain a healthy body, mind, and soul.”
From Tamra, community gardener:
“[During the pandemic,] Wasatch Community Gardens’ Popperton Garden has been the only place that I have felt comfortable to go other than my home. It [has been] such an important place in my life, and the big plus is that I have organic fresh vegetables on my table.”
From Zana, community gardener:
“I joined the garden not just to grow food, but to get to know my community. I felt very isolated when I moved to Salt Lake City and didn’t know anybody here. The garden allows me to be a part of my community and share food with others.”
From Will and Beka, workshop attendees, community gardeners, and WCG donors:
“WCG’s Community Education Program is amazing! We have attended lots of different workshops from tomatoes to pickling to garden design and soil prep. Putting those new skills into action has resulted in our garden producing much more food than we can eat. It is a good problem to have, and we regularly share it with coworkers and friends.”
From Alicia, Sabores de Mi Patria workshop participant, Mary W. Jackson Elementary School parent:
“[Growing food] is part of my culture and I wasn’t aware. I can’t wait to start my own Three Sisters garden with my family!”
From the 3rd Grade Teachers at Liberty Elementary School:
“Thank you very much for the wonderful field trip and educational program you prepared for our students. We have a little flower bed in our school garden and we want to teach our students how to take care of it… You made a difference in the hearts of our students. You see, you think you are just gardening: putting your hands in the dirt and putting out a beautiful flower or vegetable. But you are doing so much more. You are creating a place for people to heal, to grow, and to tap back into their relationships and memories and become the best of themselves that day. Your generosity is immense. You create all of this beauty and you ask nothing in return. It is an amazing and world-changing act, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts… We would like to come back in the spring and work together with you on cleaning the garden and planting seeds.”
Funding and Support
TLM: Where do the majority of your resources and donations come from?
Griffith-Yates: WCG receives funding from a diversity of sources, including a significant portion from our services to the community. Major sources of funding include the following:
- Individual donors
- Grants - corporate, foundation, and government
- Program services - includes community garden plot fees, workshop fees, summer camp fees, and program events such as our Annual Plant Sale
Additional funding sources include rental income from the residential units at the new WCG Campus, investment income, sponsorships and corporate gifts, and in-kind donations.
TLM: If any of our readers want to support your cause, what should they do?
Griffith-Yates: We appreciate donations of any amount so that we can continue to bring gardening, healthy eating, and community-building opportunities to children and adults in Salt Lake County.
When you give to WCG’s education and community garden programs, you help empower more than 10,000 youth and adults in our community annually to grow and eat healthy, local, organic food. Thank you for helping to make our programs and services possible!
You can also attend a workshop, follow us on social media, or get involved as a community gardener or volunteer. Learn more at http://wasatchgardens.org
TLM: What do you envision the future of Wasatch Community Gardens to be?
Griffith-Yates: WCG is at a transformational period in our 33-year history. With the opening of our new Campus, we are now beginning to explore the unique opportunities that this project can and will bring for our organization, as well as take on the tough work of truly understanding our organizational impact. In addition, while we’ve long served a diverse group of community members, our staff and board have largely been white women throughout our history. We have embarked on the journey to become an actively anti-racist organization and to integrate race, equity, diversity, and inclusion into all of our programs and policies. This will be a driver of our organization’s strategy for years to come as we seek to define our role in food justice in this community.
TLM: Do you plan to expand? If yes, how so?
Griffith-Yates: Expansion is necessary to fully realize the potential of our Campus. It is also necessary in order to truly serve our community. Right now, expansion looks like capacity building, as I touched on earlier. In the future we look to expand our partnerships to engage the diverse communities in Salt Lake County. As waitlists grow for our community gardens, field trips, and workshops, program expansion will naturally take place.
TLM: You just recently finished your new Wasatch Community Gardens’ Campus. What purpose will this new Campus serve the community?
Griffith-Yates: With expanded demonstration and teaching gardens and indoor/outdoor workshop and event spaces, the future Campus will serve as an urban agriculture center, providing Salt Lake County residents with enhanced opportunities to grow, eat, and prepare fresh, healthy food. The Campus will be the taproot to our four existing programs and allow us to continue to grow and support more gardens and garden leaders in Salt Lake County. While we anticipate continuing our existing garden-based educational offerings for youth and adults (gardening workshops, summer camps, field trips, and weekly classes with social service agency partners), we are excited to look at how we might expand our programs through a new Resource Barn, more volunteer engagement, tours and tastings, and more year-round programming with our new educational greenhouse and education cottage.
TLM: We have readers from all over the world. What would you say to one of them who is wondering how they can get their own Community Gardens started in their own community?
Griffith-Yates: We offer a number of resources for people organizing community gardens in Salt Lake County. Head to our website (www.wasatchgardens.org) to download our Garden Start-Up Handbook, which is chock full of tips and information about how to organize a community garden - including creating community, addressing legal issues and planting crops. If you have any additional questions, we’re happy to set-up a consultation to address them, or meet with your garden group or offer an initial site visit.
We also offer workshops about how to start a community garden. We recommend checking WCG’s website and social media regularly for workshop dates!
TLM: If one of our readers wants to get involved with Wasatch Community Gardens and help out, what should they do?
Griffith-Yates: Visit our website to learn about ways to get involved, follow us on social media (Facebook, Instagram) and visit our new Wasatch Community Gardens Campus (629 E 800 S in Salt Lake City) for a walk around the gardens!
As mentioned above, we encourage folks across Salt Lake County to attend a workshop, get involved as a community gardener or volunteer.