NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -A few minutes’ ferry ride from Lower Manhattan, a verdant 172-acre island sits in New York Harbor.

Governors Island bears a long military history, culminating in its use as a United States Coast Guard installation until 1996. Nine years later, the island was opened to the public, with swaths of land metamorphosing into a seasonal destination for concerts, picnics, bike rides, and glamping.

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With education in mind, a garden was planted to welcome public school students with free field trip programming.

“This is our seventh year in the space,” said Shawn Connell, program manager for GrowNYC’s teaching garden. “The first year we got here, there was nothing. It was a parking lot.”

Funded by foundations and private donations, volunteers put down landscape fabric, carted in soil and mulch, built garden beds, and began planting everything from blackberries to basil. Set against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, the garden sprang to life.

GrowNYC’s Teaching Garden on Governors Island (credit: CBS2)

To shape an understanding of where food comes from, the garden offered experience watering and harvesting, nutrition workshops, and cooking lessons in an outdoor kitchen.

But this year, plans for a promising new season came to an abrupt halt. The coronavirus outbreak shuttered schools. The teaching garden was left with no one to teach. Connell and his team had a decision to make.

“We had to kind of think about how this space could be most useful for the city,” Connell said. “And it just became clear very early on in the pandemic that there were so many people in this city, and particularly families in this city, that were facing really extreme financial hardship.”

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The setback revealed an opportunity—the lush garden could help feed the nearly two million city residents now without adequate food.

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“In prior seasons, it had been planted with an eye towards education,” Connell said. “This year, that didn’t matter, so we just planted as intensively as we possibly could, and we just went with it.”

The experiment has become a success. At least once per week, 400 or more pounds of produce are harvested for distribution partners including the Black Feminist Project and Chilis on Wheels. The organizations help food-insecure families access produce that’s fresh, nourishing, and very local.

Connell sees hope in the garden’s new purpose.

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“It’s definitely in the spirit of the victory gardens during the Second World War,” he said.

While he’s eager to have students back, he now perceives even more potential for the teaching garden.

“I think there’s no reason that we won’t, in subsequent seasons, continue to donate produce from this space,” he said.

He thinks of GrowNYC’s efforts as a small piece in a large puzzle—in a time of devastation and hardship, people across the country are looking for ways to connect more meaningfully with their neighbors.

“This is a great opportunity for us to kind of rethink those relationships,” he said.

The teaching garden is open to visitors between noon and 4:00 P.M. Saturdays and Sundays through the end of September. For more information, visit https://www.grownyc.org/.

Elle McLogan

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