Every seed counts.
Five years ago, the Nashville Public Library began its Seed Exchange Program, which allows Nashvillians to harvest vegetable, herb and flower seeds for free to grow their own garden. The program began after Detroit-area native and Nashville Public Library Bellevue branch manager Katherine Bryant saw a possible point of intersection between her library sciences degree and issues in her community.
“I’m from the Detroit area, and there are a lot of food deserts there where people can’t access fresh and healthy food,” she says. “While I was in college for my library sciences degree, I started thinking about ways libraries could potentially help address various social issues. Affordable healthy food is something I’ve been interested in since I was in grad school, so when we saw that other libraries were offering workshops and seed exchanges, [we wanted in too].”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as low-income areas where at least one third of the residents live more than one mile from a grocery store. In rural areas, the distance is 10 miles. The Detroit Food Policy Council found in March 2018 that 30,000 Detroit residents do not have access to healthy food. Although those numbers are up from when Bryant lived in the city, she saw a connection between the community in which she grew up and the Nashville community she now calls home. And she was right.
According to Nashville.gov, the city is home to four food-insecure areas: North Nashville, East Nashville, South Nashville (Edgehill) and the Napier-Sudekum housing development on Lafayette Street. Bryant says it’s her hope the Seed Exchange acts as a way to combat the lack of fresh foods in communities like these. All you need is a free library card to get free seeds.
“Just like you can come in and look through a shelf of books, you can browse bins of veggie, flower and herb seeds and check them out. Patrons can take them and grow them in their gardens, and then we ask they try to save some seeds from their best plants to bring back at the end of the season for next year,” she says.
In 2017, the Seed Exchange saw 1,500 Nashville growers checking out seeds from 15 participating branch locations.
“I love thinking about how many families that were fed in Davidson County,” Bryant says. “We want to get more people interested in gardening and growing their own food to promote healthier eating and promote some sustainability practices, but we really aim to make sure everyone knows this is totally free. It lowers any barriers to entry for gardening and having access to healthy foods that people might be concerned about.”
And, for those with little to no experience growing their own foods, Bryant says the library is equipped to offer all the support needed to get a garden up and running.
“Being the library, we have lots of books and magazines on gardening, and we also host workshops,” she says. “Last year, we hosted more than 75 at all of our participating branch locations, with about 1,200 people attending the programs. Those workshops cover everything from basic gardening to composting to container gardening and growing flowers.”
The workshops also “help people better understand the magic behind how to get food to grow from a seed and soil,” she says. “And, even if your garden doesn’t grow well, there’s no penalty at all for not bringing back seeds — we just ask you to try again the next year. The seed exchange is just our way of trying to get people outdoors and growing foods for free.”
The program also leans on local farms for guidance and leadership for the workshops. Bryant says the library partners heavily with the Master Gardeners of Davidson County and with local farmers like Laura Bigbee-Fott from Whites Creek Flower Farm, a small, family-owned farm and floral design studio just outside the city. Bigbee-Fott met Bryant at the Tennessee Local Food Summit in 2013 when the program was just beginning. At that time, the seed exchange didn't have any flowers, so Bigbee-Fott offered up as many as she could spare.
“Since then, I’ll typically donate a big grocery bag full of seeds every year, sometimes twice a year. It’s great to know that other people are using my seeds and that they’re not going waste. Instead, they’re creating beauty and creating pollinators for beneficial insects,” says Bigbee-Fott.
“My mom is a librarian, and one of my dear friends is also a librarian, so libraries are special to me. I think in the age of Amazon, they are having to find other ways to serve the community. This is a great way to get people into the library.” Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver says that falls right in line with the hope of those who created the project.
“A big part of our job at Nashville Public Library is to get people thinking differently about public libraries and about everything you can do, see and experience at them,” he says. “That’s what makes our seed exchange so great — we’re expanding the list of things you can get with a free library card.”
And as the library continues to expand its offerings, its reach into local neighborhoods affected by food insecurity grows too.
“We work with a lot of local seeds and local farmers — the more local you can get, the more the resources are going to address the specific issues in our communities,” she says. “Our numbers last year added up to over 10,000 packets of seeds.” And they hope for more this season.
As for Bryant, you can usually find her favorite summer produce growing in her own garden — fresh tomatoes shooting up on stakes. Her tip for beginners is to start with growing red spring radishes.
“They are the instant gratification of gardening and ready in as little as four weeks.So growing those, you will instantly feel like you have accomplished something.”