May 30, 2012

Natural Foodie: Employee gardens encourage dirty hands, warm hearts

Employee-managed corporate gardens – such as those at Idexx and Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare – are in increasing numbers joining the army fighting the war on hunger.

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

For the second year, Patty Cook is gardening on company time.

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Idexx employee Jim Cortis tends a bed at the Westbrook facility.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Loni Brown checks on young pole bean plants.

Additional Photos Below


Employer Sponsored Gardens:

Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare:

Harvest for Hunger:

A manager at Idexx Laboratories, Cook is one of hundreds of employees cultivating crops for local food pantries behind the global veterinary testing company's sprawling corporate headquarters in Westbrook.

"We delivered to the Sagamore (Village) Food Pantry last year," Cook said. "It was amazing to see the looks on people's faces when we came in with bags of vegetables."

Last year, Idexx employees grew more than 500 pounds of fresh vegetables in organic garden plots at the business, and they donated to food pantries throughout Cumberland and York counties. All this produce came from just 10 raised garden beds.

The program started because employees thought the grounds could use some sprucing up.

"We got a lot of unsolicited feedback about the appearance of the grounds," said Idexx operations manager Matt Haas. "So we focused on the landscaping and getting people to adopt (various areas of the grounds). And then they said, 'Can we do a garden?' We came up with the idea in 2010, and no one could come up with a reason to say no."

The company's landscaping contractor, KD Landscaping, installed the raised beds and surrounded them with wood chips and a fence to keep out the deer. The orchard at the front of the garden includes 22 apple, peach and pear trees, which should begin bearing fruit in a few years.

Idexx, a publicly-traded company that employs 1,600 people in Maine and 5,000 people worldwide, started the gardening project last year.

This year, the company's organic garden has 48 raised beds at two locations and 200 employees participating in the gardening project. Six of those beds will produce salad greens, edible flowers and herbs that will be used in the company's cafeteria.

All the rest will be donated to the Harvest for Hunger program, which brings fresh vegetables and fruits to those in need in Maine.


"The number of people needing assistance to get their food needs met has risen dramatically in Maine," said Barbara Murphy, an educator with the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension, which runs the Harvest for Hunger program (formerly known as Plant A Row for the Hungry).

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 200,000 Mainers – more than 15 percent of Maine households – are classified as food insecure, meaning they don't always know where their next meal will come from. The number is even higher for children, with 25 percent falling into the food insecure category.

"Hunger doesn't look like people's images of it," Murphy said. "It's not swollen bellies and big eyes. In Maine, it usually represents poor nutrition, such as people not having money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. That's the niche Harvest for Hunger is trying to fill."

Last year, the program collected 200,093 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, which it distributed to food pantries, soup kitchens and individuals. Some of the food is grown in private gardens; some comes from community garden plots. A number of farmers allow volunteers onto their farms after the harvest to glean any remaining edibles for donation to the program.

And a small but growing number of Harvest for Hunger gardens are located on corporate property.


In the midst of Portland's bustling Old Port, Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare, a nonprofit health plan, is using a rooftop deck to grow organic vegetables for the Harvest for Hunger program. The raised beds were installed in 2010 and expanded in 2011 to include four planting areas.

"Last year, we donated about 63½ pounds to Preble Street (soup kitchen)," said Tony Fournier, a Harvard Pilgrim representative who coordinates the gardening effort. "That was inclusive of a lot of green and red leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, tomatoes and cucumbers.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Jim Cortis and Peter Dale are working several beds in the Idexx garden this summer, raising peppers, onions and squash.

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A rooftop garden outside of Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare’s Portland offices overflows with vegetables last summer. This year’s planting has been delayed by nesting seagulls.

Contributed photo


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