GardenWorks DuPage: Passion Becoming Advocacy

Tina Koral

Tina Koral › Tina Koral is a writer, landscape designer, and founder of GardenWorks DuPage, a grassroots, volunteer-led project ...


Whether the focus of your food advocacy is fighting for GMO labeling, humane treatment of animals, supporting local food producers, or something entirely different, at some point you may have considered turning your activities into a more formal movement or even a nonprofit organization.

Ever since working with a government nutrition program for low-income families about 15 years ago, I’d wanted to do something more to address the problem of hunger in my community. Even though I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, there are still 95,000 people going to bed hungry here, about half of whom are children. I have two little ones of my own, and while it was heartbreaking to know that there are kids in my own community that are not getting enough food to eat, I was doubtful I could make a significant difference. I mean, really, how much of an impact could one stay-at-home mom make on a problem as enormous as hunger? Change a diaper? That I know something about. Change the world? Not so much.

I love growing things, my husband loves building things, and we both wanted our kids to learn the value of volunteerism and philanthropy.

In early 2012 I came across the new book by Tanya Denckla Cobb, Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing the Way We Eat. In the first chapter, “Giving Gardens to People in Need,” Cobb introduces Dan Barker, who has been building free home vegetable gardens since the early 80’s in Oregon. Barker believed that community gardens, which had gained popularity in the 1970’s, were not always accessible to many people who would benefit from them due to disability, lack of transportation or time. He obtained a small grant from the City of Portland, and in his first year built gardens in the backyards of 20 people in need. 30 years and 100s of gardens later, Barker now provides start-up funds to similar programs around the country. “Gardens,” he says, “are a way to raise the quality of life in a way that does no harm.”

Barker’s story resonated with me. In the weeks prior to discovering Reclaiming Our Food, my husband and I had been researching volunteer projects in which the whole family could participate. I love growing things, my husband loves building things, and we both wanted our kids to learn the value of volunteerism and philanthropy. This idea of building home gardens for families in need was a perfect fit. We adopted Barker’s model, and GardenWorks DuPage was born.

Here is my advice for taking your advocacy to the next level.

  1. Have the courage to do it

    I had many questions when we started the project. Would I have enough time? Could I find help? Could we afford to pay for the gardens out of our family’s finances until we could obtain donations? I really didn’t know how it would play out, but I did know that the idea was a good one. There was no other group building gardens for families in need, and the project would not only be good for families, but good for the community and the environment. Knowing this gave me the courage to start GardenWorks DuPage. My feeling is, if you know you’re doing a good thing, you just have to jump in and believe that everything will work out as it should.

  2. Address the cause in a way that combines your talents and passions

    My career background is in nutrition, public health, and non-profit management, and more recently, horticulture. The work I’m doing with GardenWorks satisfies my deep need to make an impact in the lives of those who need help, with the added bonus of combining all of the areas of previous jobs that I loved.

  3. Start small

    Last year we only built four gardens. This year, we will refresh those four gardens with compost and vegetable plants and build 10 more. Later this year we will begin the process of becoming a 501c3 registered nonprofit organization so that we can obtain grant funding and make a bigger impact in our county. Start small, and work out the bugs. Give your project a trial run for at least a year so that you can be sure of your mission and direction. Having project experience gives you a story that you can relay to funders.

  4. Tell people about it

    Tap into your social network. Maybe you didn’t know that Uncle Tom has the same interest in eradicating food deserts and wants to spend his weekends helping you. Or that your neighbor’s grandmother has an unused greenhouse that you can use to grow rare heirloom tomatoes. Your friends, family, and work colleagues are a good source for volunteers, donations, and other opportunities.

    I was lucky enough to be approached by two incredibly caring and intelligent women who wanted to be involved on an organizational and staff level at GardenWorks. They read about my project on a local online news outlet and were intrigued. There are lots of ways to share your news at no cost that can result in valuable connections.

  5. Get help

    You need the help of volunteers who truly believe in you and the cause not only to help with the workload, but to bounce ideas off of, and get different points of view. My two volunteer partners come up with ideas and potential pitfalls that I would never have crossed my mind. When I have a great idea in the middle of the night, I can’t wait to share it with them in the morning. It’s that kind of excitement and teamwork that makes the project more than just meaningful – it makes it fun.

  6. Partner with organizations that have a similar mission

    Clients are filtered to GardenWorks through area food pantries. This eliminates the need for GardenWorks to have any kind of intake process. Our view is, if the family needs the help of a food pantry, they qualify to receive a garden from us. We don’t want to be in the position of having to make judgments of a family’s worthiness to receive the gift of a garden. Our only requirements are that the family is a client of the food pantry, and that they have a sunny spot for the garden.

Once you decide that you want to solve one of the world’s food problems, it’s only a matter of having the courage to take it on, the passion to share your idea with the world, and the commitment to keep it going. The time is now, and the person to do it is you!

How have you grown your passion for food in to advocacy? 

Photo Credit: Tina Koral