Battling Food Insecurity in New London County, One Garden at a Time

When I first arrived at the Giving Garden in Mystic, CT, I wasn’t sure whether I was in the right place. There was a parking lot and a visitor’s center, but no garden to be seen. I cautiously walked up a gravel path lined with stone walls—this was adjacent to Stonington after all—and stumbled upon a set of rock stairs and a chicken coop before noticing a large hoop house fronted by rows of cabbages, lettuces, radishes, and more.

An older man in belted jeans, a tucked-in flannel, and a faded ushanka cap greeted me with a handshake and a confident grin. In February 2014, the Giving Garden was established as a project of the Coogan Farm Nature & Heritage Center, part of the larger Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. Coogan Farm manager Craig Floyd now runs the garden, ensuring that the nature center gives back to its home community. As Floyd put it, “If we don’t help our neighbors, what the hell are we?”

Photos courtesy of Lauren Baretta

Floyd classified the garden as a “no till, no-spray, high-brix, biointensive, biodynamic” one that aims to bring the nutrition back to food. Floyd furthered, “Food has lost 50% of its nutritional quality since 1940 and it loses another 30% within three days of coming out of the field.” By promoting a chemical-free approach to gardening, Floyd claimed that he has managed to increase the nutritional value of the food he produces exponentially.  

Throughout our interview, Floyd gave me insight into the crystals he buries beneath the soil and the healing ceremonies he periodically hosts among the plants, but the most fundamental purpose of the Giving Garden is to feed those who may not have access to food with the most dignity and respect possible. As of 2016, 15.6 million people in the US were food insecure at some point throughout the year; 437,530 Connecticut residents contributed to that statistic. To bring that number even closer to home, a third of households in the New London County struggle to make ends meet. 9,860 children in the New London area alone are currently food insecure.

According to a study by the Connecticut Food Bank, 70% of households served by the non-profit were forced to choose between buying food or paying utility bills, while over 60% had to decide whether to pay for food or rent. These are decisions that no family should have to make and yet this is the reality for thousands of people that live within a stone’s throw of Connecticut College, where tuition is now over $67,000 a year.

Sustenance is a basic human need, but according to the statistics, not a basic human right. Floyd aims to remedy this injustice as best he can. 100% of the food the Giving Garden produces goes to the Gemma E. Moran / United Way Labor Food Center, a distribution center associated with the Connecticut Food Bank, that provides food to over 80 food-assistance programs in the New London County. This food center distributes a substantial 2.7 million pounds of food a year, but Floyd highlighted the value of not only quantity, but quality.

Unlike many other providers to food banks that give away excess or leftovers, the Giving Garden grows specifically for Gemma Moran. Floyd commented on the quality of food that is often provided to food-assistance centers, “If you go to the food bank and you watch the people break the food apart… the food is rotten, moldy so I wanted to make a change in the visual presentation of the food… why don’t the food insecure people deserve the same respect?” In order to combat the reality that those being served by food trucks and food centers are often handed loose leaves of rotting swiss chard, cabbage and the like in plastic bags, Floyd makes sure the food he provides is neatly presented. “We now bundle [vegetables], which is extremely labor intensive.” He continued, “They’re food insecure, so they’ll take anything? Give me a break. It’s not right.” Dignity and respect are fundamental pillars of Floyd’s work.

The Giving Garden is able to sustain itself through volunteers, donations, and organizations such as the Nature Center and United Way of Southeastern Connecticut. The original start-up funds were provided by the Robert Youngs Foundation. Robert Youngs was a long time New London resident and carpenter for local New London schools. When he passed away in 2011, he left everything in a trust that was intended to “benefit the people of the New London area.” The recipient of these trust funds, the 30,000 square foot Giving Garden, produced 13,089 pounds of fresh vegetables in 2016 alone and “we’re nowhere near full capacity yet,” Floyd declared. It seems as though Youngs’ vision is well on its way to being recognized.

Despite my enthusiasm and support for the Giving Garden, the program is hardly able to be replicated on a large scale due to the sheer number of volunteer hours—over 3,800 logged in 2016—as well as outside funding required. When I asked Floyd whether small farms could realistically feed the world, he echoed my fears, “If we went back to small farms we would be so much better off…[but] it’s not realistic, it’s not going to happen… I don’t see modern ag[riculture] changing.”

That being said, the Giving Garden as its own entity certainly has made an impact even with its limited space and resources. Floyd passionately explained, “We have a responsibility to our community, especially to the children. The children are the future of the world and without them we’re all dead in the water.” The Giving Garden—no matter how small—is powerful, and it has made a difference in the New London community. As Floyd would put it, “farm on.”