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‘Victory Gardens,’ once a wartime program to produce local food, growing again in Northeast Ohio

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CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — A program from the past is coming back to northeast Ohio.

The state’s Department of Agriculture (OHDOA) is growing its “Victory Gardens” program during the pandemic, and some of those gardens are going in plots at the Canterbury Community Garden. The garden, started in the 1940s, is in the corner of the parking lot at Canterbury Elementary School in Cleveland Heights.

“When World War II came about, there was even more of a push for people to grow their own vegetables,” said Deb Franke, the garden’s co-leader. “And this was created in about 1943 as a Victory Garden. And it’s so it’s been a vegetable garden since World War II.”

This summer, several gardeners with growing space planted seeds that came from the OHDOA program. The agency partnered with The Ohio State University’s Extension Offices across 25 counties. 2020 was the inaugural year for the program. Last year, there were 10 counties with the program, and this year, it doubled.

“And we hope in the near future to expand it to all 88 counties,” said Dorothy Pelanda, the director for the OHDOA.

The program hands out free seeds to people who want to plant and then provides support through a blog run by OSU extension.

In early April, the program gave out “lettuce, cucumbers, beets and sunflowers,” Pelanda said.

“They picked things that I think are pretty easy to grow. And – don’t you know, you can absolutely put the seeds in the dirt,” according to Franke, who said she is the daughter of a gardener.

Victory Gardens have a long history. Started in World War I and World War II, these gardens helped ease the burden placed on larger farms, which were sending food to the troops overseas. Food from Victory Gardens stayed local.

“Having the ability to have fresh food from your own backyard is an amazing opportunity to people, for people to feed their families good food,” Pelanda said about the potential of the program.

The seeds don’t have to be used by community gardeners.

“They can take a small plot of land or maybe just a small area where they could put a box or pots and grow some food for themselves,” Franke said.

Pelanda and Franke said a few weeks of fresh food from a garden can help cut grocery costs for families.

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data showing prices in local grocery stores have gone up 2.6% since last March. The higher prices come from lower product availability. “Our goal in the Victory Gardens is not only to address food insecurity, but to educate the general public about some foods that maybe they’ve never, ever been exposed to,” Pelanda said.

Franke said the second year of the program will give more people access to the seeds they need to start their own gardens.

“I hope that we experience a period of growth,” she said.

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