When clients come to the Howard County Food Bank, it’s not unusual for them to marvel at fresh vegetables like tomatoes, broccoli, and squash or herbs like cilantro, basil, and parsley.
“When I see clients in line as I carry crops to the food bank, they are so excited to see produce,” said Dorcas Schindehette, volunteer coordinator for the Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC). “The produce goes fast.”
The fresh crops Mrs. Schindehette transports were grown at the Long Reach Garden Plot site in Columbia specifically for the food bank, which CAC oversees.
This source of fresh vegetables and herbs for the food bank took root in 2010. Rental land to grow gardens in the area was scarce at the time. But that did not deter Bita Dayhoff, who became president of CAC in 2009. She was determined to make her dream of growing vegetables come to fruition because she wanted families eligible for the food bank to have access to fresh, nutritious produce.
Ms. Dayhoff’s timing was good. Columbia Gardeners, a non-profit organization that offered garden plots at three community gardens in partnership with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, wanted more space to accommodate the residents on their waiting list. The Long Reach Garden Plot site expansion was accomplished by adding land owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Company adjacent to the existing garden plots. CAC was able to rent five of the expansion plots. A dedication ceremony was held at the Long Reach Garden Plot site on June 5, 2010.
During the last six years, the community has provided a groundswell of support for the food bank garden. More than 400 volunteers contribute 1,000 hours a year to produce nutritious food grown on CAC’s plots. Community individuals and organizations donate garden items such as compost, fertilizer, shovels, seeds, and sunscreen or the money to buy them. Garden items are housed in a shed near the food bank’s plots.
A core group of very experienced volunteer green thumbs (some are master gardeners) plan and take primary responsibility for the garden. “I do not make any decision without them,” said Mrs. Schindehette. “I would not know where to start if it was not for them.”
That core volunteer group includes Cecilia Chang, Jim Cimaguo, Lizzie Danchi, Tammy Kozlowski, Tom Kusterer, Ursula Kraljevic, Whitney LeBlanc, Gary Laidig, Rita Moy, Ted Pope, and Lenore Studt.
Step one in the planning process is to check with the food bank staff to see what flies off the shelves. Another consideration is accessing what crops grew well the previous year.
The core group meets with Mrs. Schindehette twice a year (February to plan the garden and late November to debrief about that year’s garden) but constantly consults and plans via email. At least one member of this core group joins CAC’s volunteer coordinator to oversee weekly volunteer groups that come to till, plant, water, install tomato cages, weed, and pick up vegetable pests by hand. No pesticides are used.
The steady stream of groups often comes from companies that provide time for their workers to volunteer. Most groups volunteer once a year and work for two hours. Individuals who want to work in the garden are usually placed with groups. Mrs. Schindehette gives volunteers a brief introduction to CAC’s services at the beginning of each work session.
The volunteers are given a giant assist by Long Reach Garden Plot site Manager Cleve Chick, who not only pitches in on the work from time to time, but encourages some of the other 145 plot renters at the Long Reach Garden Plot site to donate their extra plants to the food bank plots and their surplus produce to the food bank.
In 2015, the food bank garden produced 2,575 pounds of produce, down from the 3,394 pounds grown in 2014. The decrease probably stemmed from excessive rain during the summer. But even the figure from the low year exceeds expectations because the food bank’s five plots (about 20 x 25 feet each) should produce only 1,200 pounds of produce, according to calculations made by the core group of gardeners. Mrs. Schindehette attributes the unusually high yield to “love, care, and a team that knows what it is doing.”
This year the hopes for giant yields are high because two nearby garden plot renters have donated the use of their plots to CAC for this summer.
The variety of produce grown at CAC’s garden is immense, but varies according to the time of year. It includes collard greens, cauliflower, okra, radishes, Swiss chard, green beans, cabbage, garlic, spinach, onions, and several types of potatoes. It also includes lesser known American items such as tomatillo, a tomato used in salsa and a staple of Mexican cuisine. Someone donated five tomatillo plants last year that proved to be very fruitful and popular.
The garden is cultivating more than plants – it is nourishing volunteers’ minds, bodies, and spirit.
Volunteer Lizzie Danchi enjoys the outdoors, exercise, and camaraderie and says she feels healthier and happier after working in the garden. “Every week or so we have another group from a different company – college students, bankers, realtors. I have a feeling of community with people I wouldn’t meet normally.”
Cecilia Chang came to the garden four years ago with her son so he could fulfill his high school volunteer requirement. Having tried unsuccessfully to grow tomatoes and peppers in containers at home, Mrs. Chang considered herself a gardener known for killing plants rather than growing them, but thought she might as well work beside her son in the garden. Seeds of interest started to sprout as she learned tips from other gardeners. Mrs. Chang’s interest has harvested big dividends for herself because she has successfully completing training as a master gardener and for the food bank garden because she has become a member of the core planning team.
It’s not just the work that delights volunteers, it’s the knowledge that their efforts are providing nutritious food to food bank clients without any hit to their pocketbooks.
“All of us feel good about where the food goes,” sums up Ted Pope, a member of the core planning team. “We’re providing wholesome, organic, beautiful produce.”
The food bank also welcomes produce from home gardens and farms. Many individuals, farms, and organizations already donate fresh fruits and vegetables.
Non-perishable items are also needed. For more information about donating food, visit https://www.cac-hc.org/programs-services/food-assistance/ .
If interested in volunteering at the garden or another CAC service, visit https://www.cac-hc.org/get-involved/volunteer/. CAC provides all of the tools and garden equipment needed for each project, however volunteers are encouraged to bring gardening gloves. The minimum age for any volunteer is 9 years old, but garden and food bank volunteers must be at least 16 unless they are with their parent or guardian. The minimum age of some volunteer positions is 18.