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Coogan Farm to Host Giving Garden to Benefit Food Center

The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center is pleased to announce the first major initiative for its new property, the Coogan Farm. In February, the Nature Center, United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and the Robert G. Youngs Family Foundation signed an agreement that promises to bring fresh food to thousands of hungry residents of New London County daily.

When the Nature Center first launched the Campaign to Save Coogan Farm more than two years ago, a plan was envisioned that would result in the public benefitting from this property in many ways: critical watersheds and habitats would be preserved, the region’s agricultural history would be celebrated, hiking and outdoor recreation would be available to the public free of charge, and quality of life in eastern Connecticut as a whole would be improved.

The creation of The Giving Garden is the Nature Center’s first step in realizing that plan.

The Robert G. Youngs Foundation provided the seed money in the form of a grant to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center to create a two-acre garden at the Nature and Heritage Center at Coogan Farm that will grow produce for donation to the Gemma E. Moran United Way Labor Food Center, which distributes food to 63 programs that serve 91 feeding sites across New London County.

The four-year agreement creates The Giving Garden, and local horticulturalist Ian Cooke of Mystic has been hired to run the project. “We’re excited to have Ian managing the enterprise given his experience and deep knowledge in both community gardens and horticulture,” said Steven Dodd, chairman of the Coogan Farm Steering Committee.

The two acres will be divided into smaller plots, each of which is available for sponsorship by a business or organization. Local community groups or individuals can garden the plots, and the food grown will go to the United Way. During the harvesting season, which Cooke estimates will be from April through November, the United Way will collect produce from the garden Monday through Friday, and distribute it via feeding centers and its Mobile Food Pantry.

“We like the idea of keeping the farm in Coogan Farm,” said Maggie Jones, executive director of the Nature Center, which purchased 34 acres of the Coogan Farm on Greenmanville Avenue in 2013 after a major fundraising campaign. “This has been part of the plan all along, and the partnership with the United Way is a great first step. This will also provide lots of programming opportunities for us, and we are excited about that.”

Virginia Mason, president and CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, said The Giving Garden will elevate the agency’s food distribution programs to a new level of excellence.

“This is an extremely exciting project,” she said. “The vision of it, the strength of the partnership, and the commitment to providing fresh produce to a population who badly need that nutritional support. The availability of fresh produce will make a measurable difference in the health of the recipients. ”

Mason said the food bank distributes 2.7 million pounds of food annually, and the need increases every month. She said that in the past, the ability to provide fresh vegetables was inconsistent at best.

“Fresh food has become a priority for the Food Center and donations have grown. A consistent source of produce for 6-7 months of the year is a gift to the many in our community who are food insecure.”

The Robert G. Youngs Family Foundation is administered by Scott Bates, Barbara Bates and Lisa Tepper Bates of Stonington. Robert Youngs, who died in 2011, was a relative of Scott Bates. Youngs grew up in New London, worked as a master carpenter for the New London Public Schools, and when he died he left everything in a trust, with the caveat that the money should be used to “benefit the people of the New London area.”

The Giving Garden is the largest project the foundation has undertaken, said Lisa Tepper Bates. “We were approached by the Coogan campaign to support the (acquisition) project, and we thought, what a great project and also, a farm! So, working together with Harry White, Ian Cooke and Steve Dodd, we built this concept.”

Cooke, the garden manager, has extensive experience in starting and maintaining community gardens. His goal is to run the garden using natural methods (ranging from pigs brought in to clear the undergrowth to solar panels to power the well). His plan is to time the plantings so that each plot will be harvested once a week, from spring through fall, providing a consistent and wide-ranging variety of food.

Sponsorships are available for The Giving Garden. Please call 860-536-1216 for information.