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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Gardeners Seek Food Security During Pandemic

Caleb Phillips tending to garden
Janice Turner
Caleb Phillips was hired to manage Sunnyside Community Gardens last fall to establish partnerships with organizations that could benefit from its harvest.

COVID-19 has raised concerns about supply chains and timely delivery to stores. That includes the most important supply chain – food.
Some gardeners in McLean County have changed their focus as a result of the coronavirus.

Jessica Schauls standing behind bags of mulch
Credit Jessica Schauls
Jessica and Kyle Schauls are planning to install two raised garden beds this year for the first time.

It amounts to food instead of flowers. Some dabblers in home gardening have decided to go bigger this year, like Kyle and Jessica Schauls of Bloomington.

“Last year we just did pots with herbs and tomatoes and our kid just pulled them out and popped them in his mouth, and then the year before that we did a pallet garden which is super easy and noncommittal,” Jessica Schauls recalled.

This year, the Schauls are building a raised garden bed, two in fact, with 64 square feet of tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs and more.

Jessica is a fitness center manager still working from home. Kyle coaches soccer at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Jessica said gardening engages her mind and has helped her learn new skills. With COVID-19, she said she feels it provides security.

“Now with the coronavirus, there is that added (incentive), it was nice to have this,” she said. “You have a two-week wait sometimes for groceries, so to be able to have something to fall back on, we have stocks of canned goods, things like that in the basement.”

Schauls said she plans to learn canning to preserve their harvest, adding it's her way to take control when so much is beyond her control, without resorting to more compulsive behaviors seen during the pandemic.

“I don’t have to get caught up in a panic as much because I do feel there is that feeling out there at times, like toilet paper causing the rise in anxiety,” Schauls said.

Sunnyside Garden

The anxiety is real for those waiting for an end to the pandemic, especially for those living in a hollowed-out economy.

That's where Sunnyside Garden on Bloomington's west side sees its mission. 

“We are trying to be at the forefront of helping people who are going to be really devastated by the economy by donating food and we are trying to produce as much as we can,” said lead caretaker Janice Turner.

At the end of last summer, Sunnyside Garden needed money and manpower. It wasn't clear whether the garden would produce anything this year. But a grant came to hire a part-time manager, Caleb Phillips.

“We hope that this is a time where we can try to provide some stability to some different people,” Phillips said. “You go to the grocery store and there’s a lot of things that aren’t on the shelf. If things aren’t getting on to the shelf, we know what’s going to happen. The prices are going to go up.”

The garden feeds about 200 families through various organizations, including the Bloomington-Normal Boys & Girls Club and Home Sweet Home Ministries; both contribute time in the garden.

It also offers produce for residents of a nearby low-income apartment complex and anyone willing to help. Five dollars and one hour of work get you $25 worth of food. Phillips said he hopes to feed as many as 300 families this year.

“We have had quite a few people reach out to us, just asking, ‘What do you guys do? Is there a way to get vegetables or fruit from you? How does this work? Where are you supplying to?'" Phillips said.

Phillips has worked in community development in China and Thailand during unstable times. He said it's scary when basic necessities become a question for so many.

Turner added Sunnyside Garden will ensure all volunteers follow COVID-19 precautions, including social distancing and sanitizing tools before and after each shift.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.