Pa. Capitol garden fights hunger, literally and symbolically


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HARRISBURG -- It doesn't look like much now -- just a bare patch of dirt outside the Capitol.

Groups of schoolchildren, legislators, staffers and lobbyists walking by on a recent warm day didn't even glance at it.

But within a few months, the Capitol Hunger Garden will be in full bloom, with produce such as peppers, potatoes, sweet corn, onions, squash and tomatoes. The items, tended by volunteer gardeners, will be harvested and donated to the needy.

The garden is set to break ground for its fourth year Tuesday.

Most of the produce goes to feed the more than 100 people who gather for lunch at Downtown Daily Bread, a Harrisburg soup kitchen.

"Vegetables are very expensive, so it's something we don't order a lot of," said Elaine Strokoff, the charity's executive director. "It certainly goes to good use -- for hungry people."

The small plot is expected to produce about 1,000 pounds of food this summer. There is no cost to taxpayers as all supplies are donated and master gardeners help volunteers plant, harvest and weed the garden, said state Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, who chairs the Senate Hunger Caucus and helped start the garden. The garden debuted in 2010, Mr. Brubaker said.

"We get everything that's grown. Fresh vegetable, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, herbs," said Ms. Strokoff, who added that the vegetables are often used the day they are harvested or the next day.

The kitchen, just steps from the Capitol, serves between 100 and 150 people daily.

"[It's] people who are living in poverty, people who are homeless. People who have lost their jobs or lost their health benefits. Maybe they've gone through a divorce or family situation, or are just down on their luck," Ms. Strokoff said.

The garden's value goes beyond the produce it grows, believes Joe Arthur, executive director of Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and chairman of Feeding Pennsylvania.

"The big value is the symbolic value, the fact that it is just to the right of the Capitol Building," he said. "So many people walk by there -- legislators, administrative folks, people visiting the Capitol. It gets huge exposure. It is a representation of hunger in Pennsylvania ... We like to remind people that while hunger is sometimes invisible, it is actually a huge problem."

About 12.5 percent of Pennsylvanians are "food insecure," according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Census Bureau data cited by the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger organization, show that 19.6 percent of Pennsylvania children lived in poverty in 2011. The overall poverty rate for the state was 13.8 percent.

"The true objective is simply to make people aware that this is an issue," Mr. Brubaker said. "Because many times hunger is not seen."

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Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter: @KateGiammarise. First Published April 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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