In Milbridge, Pop-Up Gardens Fight Food Insecurity and Obesity

Chris Kuhni and the volunteers of Incredible Edible Milbridge are growing produce all over town.

Incredible Edible Milbridge
Back row, left to right: lead gardener Janis Lesbines, Kuhni, and Dyer Stewart. Front row, left to right: lead gardeners Myriam Roy and Hayden at the Milbridge Commons garden.
By Tina Fischer | Photographed by Molly Haley

Chris Kuhni moved her family out of Pennsylvania to Cherryfield 25 years ago and describes her Down East surroundings as “paradise.” But as a nurse practitioner in one of Maine’s poorest counties, she struggled to address high rates of food insecurity, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

“Fifteen-minute office appointments weren’t doing it,” Kuhni says. “These patients needed to eat better, exercise more, get outside. I’d give a diagnosis, they’d look at me like a deer in the headlights, and then our visit was up. I wanted to find a way to offer them the resources they really needed.”

Then she heard about a project in England that involved creating vegetable gardens for neighbors to harvest at will. She thought about Milbridge, a fishing town of 1,300 and a hub for surrounding communities, like Cherryfield. “Small enough, yet big enough to pull this off,” Kuhni says. “We have a lot of talented people here and a lot of gardeners.”

Volunteers installed garden beds in front of the bank, the post office, the hardware store, the vet’s office, the nursing home. Signs read, “Yes, this garden is FREE for you to pick!”

So Kuhni brought the idea to her board at Women for Rural Healthy Living, a resource she started in 2004 and still heads as volunteer executive director. The board was all in, and with an enthusiastic response from local businesses and $25,000 (from a donor who prefers anonymity), Incredible Edible Milbridge started building raised-bed planters in 2013.

Volunteers installed garden beds in front of the bank, the post office, the hardware store, the vet’s office, the nursing home. The first eight gardens soon grew to 25, and more and more residents, encouraged by colorful signs (in English and Spanish) reading, “Yes, this garden is FREE for you to pick!” began gleefully harvesting sidewalk suppers.

In 2014, the program grew significantly with the addition of a 14,000-square-foot garden on donated land next to Milbridge’s Red Barn Motel. Volunteers now grow thousands of pounds of organic produce on that plot, all free for the taking. Cherryfield farmer Michael Hayden manages the site, along with gardens that IEM built at the elementary school, where students help him plant and harvest and where gardening is now part of the curriculum. (“The kids love Farmer Michael,” Kuhni says.)

Kuhni’s networking and grant writing have won IEM support from foundations, businesses, and others. In 2018, Maine Coast Heritage Trust helped IEM create an 18,000-square-foot garden and 4-acre community park overlooking Narraguagus Bay. Milbridge Commons Wellness Park is home to walking paths, picnic tables, and a flower-filled pollinator bed. A playground and orchard are in the cards when pandemic precautions ease up, and plans include a maze, performance space, and raised beds for elderly and disabled gardeners. A recent grant from Milbridge blueberry producer Wyman’s helped fund IEM’s first greenhouse. Kuhni looks forward to extending the growing season and, post-COVID, hosting workshops there.

Longtime garden volunteer Pam Dyer Stewart says a key component to IEM’s success is that the gardens were created for everyone. “Young, old, all income levels. We never wanted them to be for ‘the needy,’” Dyer Stewart says. “We’re all needy — some need more income, some need more loving, some more compassion.” Stewart delights in seeing the connections the gardens nurture. “Often there are people here whose paths might never cross, but in the gardens, they’re talking about what’s growing, helping each other find the garlic. . . . People come together around food.” 

Read more about the Mainers we saluted in our November 2020 Giving Back Issue, all doing their part to make the Pine Tree state a better place.

Plus, five nonprofit organizations making a big impact. [Sponsored]