Cool Jobs: USDA Community Gardener

Tuesday - 9/11/2012, 8:00am EDT

The community garden at the corner of 12th Street and Jefferson Avenue in Washington, D.C., is a visual reminder of the Agriculture Department's mission.

In 2009, USDA employees "took a jackhammer to the road" and, with the help of volunteers, created what would become the flagship garden for the People's Garden Initiative.

The effort was to commemorate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who had created the agency, calling it the "people's department."

"The secretary of Agriculture really wanted USDA employees to lead by example and to demonstrate in a very visible and clear way what the Department of Agriculture does, and what better way than to plant a garden?" said Livia Marques, who led the initiative.

The initiative now has more than 1,800 People's Gardens nationwide. To be part of the initiative, a garden must meet three goals: sustainability, community involvement and public service.

"You can declare an existing garden as a People's Garden as long as it incorporates the three components," according to the initiative's website.

Gardens that meet this criteria can sign up online to be recognized as part of the initiative.

Some People's Gardens provide recreational space, while others might harvest fresh food for neighborhood food pantries and banks. Marques said she is probably most proud of the fact that the initiative to date has donated 1.3 million pounds of produce.

The gardens must also be collaborative — created and maintained by a partnership of local residents and organizations. To date, the initiative includes nearly 900 partnerships and more than 60,000 hours volunteered.

"This initiative, for me, is just a wonderful way, a simple way to help people and to empower them ... and really to bring fresh food and fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods," she said.

Marques said her parents instilled in her a desire to help others. "They definitely did that by example, even though a lot of times we didn't have a lot even to share for ourselves," Marques said.

Bringing together employees

Marques previously worked as a horticulturist for USDA. But not all USDA employees who volunteer on the headquarters garden have a background in growing plants.

To work on the USDA garden, volunteers must be certified through the agency's executive master gardener training program (although anyone can volunteer on Tuesdays to help with harvest), said Annie Ceccarini, outreach and education coordinator for the People's Garden Initiative.

The program consists of 16 hours of training courses and an exam before employees can receive their certification and get the official People's Garden T-shirt. Employees must also volunteer at least 32 hours a year, although some volunteers easily volunteer that amount in a month, Ceccarini said.

Some people were skeptical USDA employees would be able to make the time to participate in such a program. But in the first year the training program was offered, 120 volunteers signed up within the first 30 minutes of registration and organizers had to close off the waiting list, Ceccarini said.

"We have administrative assistants, we have lawyers, we have compliance specialists, we have accountants. We don't have anyone who you would look at their title and you'd go, 'Oh, they have a green thumb,'" Ceccarini said.

Employees work in the garden early in the morning before work, after work, during their lunch breaks and even on the weekends, she said.

Because USDA is made up of 17 different agencies, employees who work on the garden often do not know each other before they start volunteering.

Marques attributes the popularity of the initiative to a general interest in gardening.

"Although there's a lot of local efforts to try to bring visibility to gardening and local agriculture ... the initiative gave it a national voice so they could join that, so all of these small efforts have a larger umbrella to be under," she said.

Marques' work on the garden has made her a finalist for a 2012 Service to America Medal. Meet the rest of the finalists.

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