MILBRIDGE — Incredible Edible Milbridge, a community garden program that produces and gives away 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of fresh organic produce annually, recently received $14,200 to boost its food production.
The funding comes at a time when the Downeast region’s jobless, underemployed and fixed-income residents are grappling with greater food insecurity due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurse practitioner Christine Kuhni, who directs Women for Healthy Rural Living in Milbridge (formerly the Women’s Health Resource Library), reported June 24 that the small nonprofit had received $10,000 from the locally headquartered blueberry grower/processor Wyman’s to “do something sustainable to help address food insecurity during these most uncertain times.” Wyman’s is the nation’s second largest brand in the retail frozen fruit category.
Through the Maine Community Foundation, an anonymous donor has contributed an additional $4,200, enabling Women for Healthy Rural Living to buy a greenhouse with the intent to extend its growing season, increase food production and hold related indoor workshops.
“The coronavirus has spurred even more people into home gardening,” Kuhni said this week. “And with job losses and financial devastation, we expect the demand for Incredible Edible to be off the charts this year.”
Originating in England’s West Yorkshire mill town of Todmorden, Incredible Edible was founded by Pamela Warhurst and Mary Clear, who turned unused pieces of public land into free food plots. Their grassroots effort took off globally and Incredible Edible Milbridge is among hundreds of Incredible Edible groups from Baghdad to Juba in South Sudan.
Begun in 2013, the Milbridge group’s operation has seven free, pick-your-own raised beds scattered around town, a free 14,000-square-foot vegetable garden at the Red Barn Motel as well as an additional 14,500 square feet under cultivation at the recently completed 4.6-acre Milbridge Commons off Main Steet.
Milbridge Elementary School has integrated the Incredible Edible program into its curriculum and students help plant the gardens in the spring. Besides the gardens, the organization’s board members and volunteers offer free cooking workshops throughout the year.
Kuhni, who has worked for 25 years at the Milbridge Medical Center, says Washington County has the highest food insecurity, lowest health ranking and lowest affordability of healthy food options in Maine, according to a 2014 Eastern Maine Health Systems study. She also notes that 70 percent of the county’s schoolchildren are on free or reduced breakfast and lunch. Food insecurity, she adds, is an issue among all ages. The novel coronavirus, and its economic impact, has only made a bad situation worse.
“I think it is significantly worse because so many people are out of work,” she said.
Wyman’s took the initiative, Kuhni said, to reach out to Women for Healthy Rural Living. She says the company has supported the women’s health organization since its founding in 2005. She also related that the group recently acquired and is moving into a new home (the former Cinnamon Stick bakery) at 87 Main St. The Milbridge Commons is a short walk across the street. The 16-by-24-foot greenhouse will be erected behind the office this coming fall.
In the Downeast region, Kuhni says poor nutrition is another major issue that transcends socioeconomic groups. She sees people of all ages and income levels whose health is dramatically affected by excess processed-food consumption. The gardens’ free organic produce “is not just for the disadvantaged. It’s for everyone,” she stressed.