The number of WVU Extension Service gardening program participants skyrockets amid COVID-19

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program (FNP) has seen an exponential increase in the number of people interested in their gardening program because of COVID-19.

The ‘Grow This: West Virginia Garden Challenge’ is a free annual program that encourages home gardening and has been around since 2018, with only about a couple hundred people showing interest each year. However, now that many are stuck at home quarantining, they are turning to gardening as a means of escaping the house but remaining safe.

This is according to Zack Harold, a multimedia specialist with the FNP who said they now have roughly 5,000 participants signed up in the program.

“I think the reason we’ve seen such an explosion of interest here is because people find themselves at home with a lot of extra time on their hands,” Harold said. “They’re looking for ways to get outdoors that also allows them to maintain proper social distancing from other people and gardening is just a really healthy and relaxing way to get outside and spend some time outside with your family.”

Harold said it is easy to sign up, first you have to fill out a short online form with your contact information and then throughout the seasons, they send you four packets of seeds. This year participants will be growing microgreens, tomatoes, peas and butternut squash. Right now, participants are growing microgreens.

There is even an online Facebook community where participants can post pictures, share tips, and ask questions.

WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program’s work is supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. The primary goal of the gardening program, Harold said, is to reach out to people who are on public assistance through SNAP and or other programs.

Their goal is to help low-income families eat better, make their dollars go farther and help them make better lifestyle choices. He said the gardening program was introduced as a way to get healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables onto people’s tables.

One other reason the program has seen a rise in participants, Harold said, is because COVID-19 has caused a lot of panic-shopping even though there’s no real reason to be concerned about the food supply. This has happened because people’s natural instinct in times of stress has kicked in, forcing them to worry about it Harold said.

“When that happens we kind of go back to our roots and think of our grandparents and our great grandparents who grew all their food because they had to,” Harold said. “I think it’s empowering for people to realize that food doesn’t only have to come from a grocery store, ‘I can put some seeds in the ground, here in a couple of months I’ll be able to pick it off the vine and take it to my dinner table and enjoy it’.”

The program is open to anybody who is interested, whether you’re receiving public assistance or not. A lot of the people they serve end up being public assistance recipients, so it works out in the long run, Harold said.

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