When most people think of food pantries, they think of canned tuna and boxed mac-and-cheese on a shelf.
But there’s an increasing push to get fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables into the hands of the hungry.
Traditionally, home gardeners have often donated extra tomatoes and monster zucchinis to food pantries. But as community gardening grows more popular nationwide, there’s also an expanding subset of community gardening — food pantry gardens. Several such gardens have sprung up around southwestern Ohio.
Who’s at the helm
At Wright State University in Fairborn, Dr. Linda Ramey, associate director of sustainability, started a community garden behind Russ Engineering Center last year through a confluence of circumstances: lots of open space on campus, students who were interested in community gardening, and the existence of the Friendship Food Pantry on campus.
Ramey received donations of wood, seeds and plants from around campus, and volunteers helped to build the first set of beds. A small grant allowed her to pay student Adam French, who has since graduated, to shepherd the garden through its first summer.
But what really spurred the garden on was a $25,000 grant from National Office Furniture, earmarked for campus sustainability projects. Ramey doubled the garden’s size and hired Lindsey Millsaps, a biological sciences and international studies major, as sustainability intern.
Students and faculty from the Green Ops group help to tend and harvest the garden, and the engineering club wants to expand it next year.
A grant was also the catalyst for Springfield’s Second Harvest Food Bank to plant a garden on an adjacent lot in 2011.
After winning a grant for a charity of his choice, a local farmer selected Second Harvest when he heard about the food bank’s vision to start a community garden. The lot was previously was littered with bottles, hypodermic needles, tires and other trash, according to Director of Operations Jeff Miller
At First Baptist Church of Kettering,a big parcel of church property became the church’s first garden this spring. Twenty-seven church families grow their own gardens and contribute 30 percent of the yield to the church’s food pantry.
Cox Arboretum MetroPark in West Carrollton has a kitchen garden that supports its programs and classes about fruits and vegetables, but the bulk of the food ends up at The Foodbank in Dayton. Two groups of volunteers plant, weed, tend and harvest .
And at Marvin’s Organic Gardens in Lebanon, the Hope in Action Giving Garden supplies vegetables for the Lebanon Food Pantry. Organizer Lynda Crabtree says she recruits anybody she can find who loves to garden.
What they’re growing
Some gardens strive for variety — for instance, Wright State is growing heirloom and otherwise interesting plants — while others, like Second Harvest, stress high yield.
At First Baptist, families were allowed to grow whatever they wanted. “We’ve got everything from strawberries to okra,” organizer Rodney Furr said.
Wright State’s intern, Millsaps, rattled off a crop list that included three types of potatoes, squash, beans, spinach, herbs, carrots, tomatoes, Hungarian peppers, watermelons, onions, kale and peas. An abundance of greens early in the season spurred a salad dressing drive for the campus food pantry.
Cox Arboretum’s 40-by-60-foot garden is divided into four quadrants, each serving as a model that a home gardener could replicate. Horticulturist Rich Pearson encourages gardeners to drop by for ideas. Crops include kohlrabi, kale, chard, beans, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and squash, plus four pots of raspberry bushes.
Last year, Cox donated nearly 900 pounds of produce to The Foodbank; this year, the yield was already up to 280 pounds by mid-July.
At Hope in Action’s Giving Garden, Crabtree said the crop list has been whittled down. Volunteers used to aim for variety, but over the course of the garden’s five growing seasons, they’ve decided a better approach is to specialize. The garden grows “basic vegetables,” Crabtree said, such as zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, squash, sweet and white potatoes, onions, peppers, lettuce and spinach.
At Second Harvest, Miller is growing a similar list of crops: pumpkins, squash, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, dill and basil.
His garden last year produced about 800 pounds of vegetables, but this year’s garden is doing even better.
“I’ve never seen it look this good — I think I’m going to break 1,000 pounds,” he said.
Why they’re doing it
In the end, growing healthy produce for food banks is the primary motivation for these gardeners. But they cited other reasons, too.
“I wanted to show my kids that cucumbers don’t come from Kroger,” Furr said of First Baptist of Kettering’s garden.
At Wright State, environmental impact is a big motivator.
Through the Office of Sustainability, “we try to do things as green as possible and be environmentally friendly on campus,” Millsaps said.
And at Second Harvest, the site itself was part of the motivation.
“This piece of ground was very ugly,” Miller said. But another goal was to use money wisely – growing food is cheaper than buying it. And the garden gives Second Harvest the opportunity “to show the neighborhood in which we operate that we are doing everything we can to get them good food – fresh food.”
BBQ KALE CHIPS
Here’s a recipe that sustainability intern Lindsey Millsaps plans to distribute to clients who accept kale from the Wright State University food pantry.
1 bunch kale, washed and dried (about 1 pound)
Olive oil cooking spray, for spraying
BBQ seasoning (below), for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the thick stem from the kale and discard. Tear kale leaves into bite-size pieces. Lay the kale onto the prepared baking sheet and spray evenly with cooking spray. Bake until crispy and browned on the edges, tossing the kale halfway through, 18 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle kale with BBQ seasoning and serve. (The BBQ seasoning recipe yields more seasoning than you will need for the kale chips. Sprinkle kale with seasoning to taste and save remaining seasoning for another use, such as a dry rub for meat.)
1/4 cup paprika
2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Mix the paprika, ancho chile, sugar, garlic powder, salt and dry mustard in a small bowl. Makes 3/4 cup seasoning.
How you can help
Volunteers are welcome at several area food pantry gardens. Here’s how to get involved:
Cox Arboretum, Miami Twp. (Montgomery County): Contact volunteer coordinator Janet Metter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-434-9005 ext. 1309.
Hope in Action’s Giving Garden, Lebanon: E-mail Lynda Crabtree at email@example.com.
Second Harvest Food Bank, Springfield: Call Jeff Miller at (937) 323-6507, option 4.
Wright State University, Fairborn: Contact sustainability intern Lindsey Millsaps at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several recipes inside today’s Life
Every Wednesday in Life, you will find recipes and cooking advice to inspire every at-home cook. Inside today’s life section, we offer you many recipes to try at home.