This is the third in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the Citizen Services Medal, Livia Marques, director of the People’s Garden Initiative at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
A challenge by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for employees to create gardens at department facilities has blossomed into a community movement involving 798 partner organizations and more than 1,600 “People’s Gardens” located in all 50 states and overseas.
Leading this successful U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Livia Marques, who took a program that started with one garden at USDA headquarters in Washington in 2009 and turned it into a huge undertaking that today engages more than 6,000 volunteers and has resulted in the donation of more than 1.3 million pounds of produce to neighborhood food pantries, kitchens and shelters.
“It’s remarkable that she has been able to grow this out of virtually nothing,” said Robin Heard, USDA deputy assistant secretary for administration.
Marques contacted outside groups to help extend the reach of the program beyond USDA employees. This led to partnerships with national organizations, such as Keep America Beautiful, which traditionally works on litter control, and started by creating gardens for beautification rather than food.
“Our organization has provided hundreds of these gardens,” said Matthew McKenna, president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. “The program started exclusively as flower gardens, but has expanded into vegetable gardens. It brings nutritional awareness to kids and brings vegetables to neighborhoods that wouldn’t have them. The most impressive thing is how much has been accomplished with minimal resources.”
As the program grew in popularity, Marques created a year-round donation program called Share Your Harvest, a partnership with USDA, farmers and the public that encourages people to donate produce to local food pantries.
People’s Gardens vary in size and type, but all are required to have three components. They must benefit the community, in some cases by creating recreational spaces and in others by providing a harvest for a local food banks or shelters. They must be collaborative and involve local individuals, groups or organizations in creating and maintaining the gardens. And they must incorporate sustainable practices.
While community gardens are not the silver bullet, “the benefits they provide go far beyond the produce,” Marques said. They have been used to teach communities about the environment and eating more nutritiously, and in some urban areas, have even served as a safe place for children to play.
“The simple act of planting a garden can make real and lasting change to improve food access and promote healthy lifestyles in our most vulnerable communities,” said Marques.
Erik Talkin, CEO of the Food Bank of Santa Barbara, Calif., said his organization has placed a big focus on obtaining fresh produce for those it serves.
“We appreciate getting the produce from the People’s Garden, especially because the food that is donated is grown locally,” said Talkin. “Food banks are often given foods that are bad for you or even make you hungry.”
As someone who took advantage of the free and subsidized lunch programs throughout her school years, Marques said she hopes that the gardens can provide a better way of helping families.
“I was personally affected by these programs, including the negative stigma often associated with food stamps,” she said. “I’m looking a little differently at how things can be implemented so it’s more respectful and inclusive.”
Marques was working at a U.S. Forest Service research station in North Carolina when she was asked to come to Washington in 2009 to break ground on the first People’s Garden at USDA headquarters on the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who founded the USDA in 1862 and referred to it as “The People’s Department.”
Vilsack called on the more than 100,000 agency employees to look for opportunities to participate in their home communities. The initiative, coming in the same year that first lady Michelle Obama planted the kitchen garden on the White House grounds, evolved far beyond the original intent after an overwhelming response from the public.
Today, People’s Gardens are located on federal leased or owned property, at schools, faith-based centers and other places within communities in every state. They also have expanded to three U.S. territories and 12 twelve foreign countries.
Claire Payne, a technical information specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, said Marques “has a real gift for establishing and nurturing partnerships” and an ability to maximize resources-not just financial resources, but also people’s energy and enthusiasm.
“Through her vision for the People’s Garden Initiative, Livia has created a sustainable, community-based strategy to help solve a complex issue facing the country,” said Payne.