Food pantries are growing their own

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As home gardeners pluck the last veggies from their autumn vines, volunteers and staffers at three local gardens are doing the same -- but not for themselves.

Food pantry gardens in Sewickley, Bellevue and Wilkinsburg yield fresh fruits and vegetables for individuals in need, and the Bellevue and Wilkinsburg gardens recently added orchards as well.

Gardens like these are popping up all around the country as a manifestation of the changing philosophy of food banks. The mission is no longer simply to provide any old food but to provide healthy, nutritious food.

For the largest food bank in the region, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, this has translated into such initiatives as a gleaning program (volunteers harvest the leftovers from local farms) and the Produce to People program (deliveries of fresh food to individual neighborhoods, complete with recipes and demos).

But the good folks of Bellevue, Sewickley and Wilkinsburg are tending their produce as far back as the seeds.

Wilkinsburg's garden is the regional pioneer, in existence for seven years. It's also the smallest, staffed by one paid worker, Harry Kirk, who also does building maintenance for Second United Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg, home of the We Care Food Pantry. Mr. Kirk grew three crops for the pantry this season: tomatoes, green beans and kale. A grant from the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation added 25 fruit trees to the mix this year, including apple, peach, plum and pear.

Sewickley's all-organic garden, which yielded 700 pounds of produce this season, has more variety. Borage, dandelions (for the greens), fennel, kale, nasturtium flowers, blue Hubbard squash and other oddities nestle alongside the more common tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. Cindy Neitz, a chef who co-manages the garden along with Christine Allen, does cooking demos and hands out recipes to teach recipients how to use the more unusual veggies. (See her recipes for Butternut Squash Soup and Sauteed Swiss Chard at the end of this story.)

Bellevue's garden, the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Memorial Garden on Davis Avenue, is just finishing its second season of production and, like Wilkinsburg, used a grant from the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation to add 25 fruit trees this year. The garden yielded about 3,000 pounds of produce in 2011 and about 2,000 pounds this year for distribution at North Hills Community Outreach's two food pantries in Bellevue and Hampton.

The bounty of the Bellevue garden benefited Rose Thomas of Franklin Park, who is a single "parent" to her four grandchildren, ages 8, 7, 5 and 4. As she puts it, any job she could get wouldn't pay for childcare for all the kids, so she stays home to care for them and used the pantry to help stretch their food for the past couple months.

She grew her own tomatoes this summer but really appreciated the array of fresh vegetables she could get at the pantry. Once, she and the grandkids even got their first taste of jicama.

The last time she was there, "I saw a case of banana peppers, and my eyes lit up," she said. The peppers weren't a hot commodity with the other pantry clients, so the staff gave her the whole case. She went home and canned 28 jars of stuffed banana peppers -- and surprisingly, three of her four grandkids love them.

She prefers canning her own foods and also making homemade rather than prepared meals because "I know what's in them," and that makes her feel safe feeding them to her grandkids.

"I wouldn't have been able to do that (canning the banana peppers) if they hadn't given me the peppers," she said. "They cost $3.99 a pound in the store."

This was a challenging year for gardens that are largely staffed by volunteers. Bellevue's lower production this year stemmed from the drought, although Rosie Wise, the garden's only paid staffer, said the season was still successful "thanks to the volunteers who spent hours and hours watering." She estimates that volunteer hours this year amounted to the equivalent of having a second full-time staff person. Volunteers usually work the Bellevue garden from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.

In Sewickley, a core group of about a dozen volunteers gathered each Saturday morning this season for a total of about 2,500 volunteer hours.

In Wilkinsburg, Mr. Kirk and his wife, Dorothy, the church secretary, spent many an evening watering the garden this summer to nurse it through the drought. And their green beans suffered a beetle infestation, lowering yield later in the season.

Finding a place to put a food pantry garden can be a challenge particularly in an urban area. Two of the region's gardens are on public property, while another is on donated land. Wilkinsburg's garden has a particularly unique arrangement -- it's part of Taylor Park, which is borough property, but is maintained by Second United Presbyterian. When it comes time to harvest, the Kirks simply schlep the food next door to the church for the food pantry, which is held on the second Wednesday evening of each month from 5 to 7 p.m. with a short worship service at 5:30. With their food pantry being held only once a month, there sometimes are veggies ready for harvest in between times. When that happens, the Kirks blanch and freeze the food for later distribution, or they give it to elderly members of the church. And while they don't really use volunteers in the garden, they always need volunteers for setup on the Tuesday before each food pantry. Besides church members, some of their current volunteers are food pantry clients.

Sewickley's garden is on the grounds of the Sewickley Community Center, where veggies are distributed at Free Farmers Markets, held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays in the summer and fall. Proof of residency and income are not required.

The empty lot for the Bellevue garden was given to North Hills Community Outreach by Terrie Amelio, who donated it on the condition that it house a food pantry garden in memory of her mother, Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni, who had grown vegetables for her family during the Great Depression. Ms. Amelio grew up in the house across the street from the lot. North Hills Community Outreach later used a grant to buy the adjacent lot as well. But even with two lots, space is at a premium, and the group is finding clever ways to use every inch. For instance, in the new orchard space, gardeners also planted low crops such as berries and herbs on the ground underneath the dwarf trees.

Plans for the Bellevue garden include a strawberry patch and an area where children can grow some of the food, Ms. Wise said. And even though it's autumn, this garden won't really close -- it'll just move indoors. By using a "high tunnel" (unheated) greenhouse, Ms. Wise plans to grow cool-weather crops such as spinach, lettuce and chard all winter long.

Ms. Wise eventually hopes to add an educational component to teach people how to grow their own food.

She's still fomenting plans, noting that starting a garden from scratch is "like renovating a house -- You live in it for awhile before you decide what's best for the space."

Tending a garden seems like a lot more work than stacking canned food on some shelves, so why bother with all the extra effort?

"We are very passionate about growing nutritious fruits and vegetables for families who are food insecure because it is not only important to have access to food but to have healthy food," said Ashley Kelly-Stuart, media relations coordinator for the Sewickley garden. "I want people to know that supplying fresh and nutritious food is the best way to fight hunger."

"If you have ever eaten a tomato fresh from the garden, the hard work is all worth it," Ms. Wise added. "Our produce is harvested and distributed to pantry clients within 24 hours. We want people to understand that eating healthy is also eating really tasty food."

For information or volunteer opportunities, check for Sewickley's garden and for Bellevue's, or call Second United Presbyterian in Wilkinsburg at 412-242-4430.

Butternut Squash Soup
  • 2 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup

Place first 6 ingredients in large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil.

Simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours, adding more water as needed to maintain level.

Remove from heat and let soup cool.

Remove bay leaf from soup. Using blender, food processor or immersion wand, puree soup.

Add remaining ingredients and serve. Serves 8.

-- Chef Cindy Neitz

Sauteed Swiss Chard
  • 1 pound Swiss shard
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup water or chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash of balsamic vinegar or your favorite salad dressing

Roughly chop Swiss chard and soak in bowl of water.

Heat butter and oil in pan; add diced onions and saute until soft.

Drain water from Swiss chard; add chard to pan and toss to coat with oil.

Add minced garlic to pan; saute over medium heat for 3 minutes.

Add water or chicken stock; cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add splash of vinegar or favorite dressing; toss and serve.

-- Chef Cindy Neitz

food - recipes

Rebecca Sodergren writes The Food Column:


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