Sewickley pantry offers fresh foods on the house
Autumn Redcross, a volunteer, stands by one of the last harvests from the Sewickley Food Pantry Garden on Wednesday in Sewickley.
Stephanie Bliss, a volunteer, checks a plant for beans at the Sewickley Food Pantry Garden.
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Hearty, crusty loaves of bread, heaped on top of each other, beckon to onlookers.
Olive loaf, whole grain, pumpernickel and sourdough sidle up beside French baguettes and plump, golden challah rolls. They're just begging to be slathered in warm butter, or perhaps for a dip in a bowl of hot, home-cooked soup.
And the price? They're on the house.
The breads, donated by Mediterra Food Company, were just some of the tasty and free offerings featured at a recent Sewickley Community Center Food Pantry Garden, which holds free farmer's market each Wednesday from mid-summer into the first weeks of fall. This season's final market was Sept. 26.
The farmer's market operates in conjunction with the center's year-round food pantry.
The primary function of the community garden program is to grow fresh produce using organic methods, and to share that produce with those who need help getting adequate amounts of nutritious foods.
The garden, established in 2008, began as a 144-square foot patch installed by garden managers Cindy Neitz and Christine Allen, as well as by volunteer Jeremy Brown. Four years later, it stretches out as a 1,500-square foot plot, surrounded by a tall, wire fence.
Over this year's growing season, the garden crop produced carrots, cubanelle and cherry peppers, potatoes, zucchini, fennel, lettuces, green onions, kale, mustard greens, snap peas, Swiss chard, and a host of other fresh delights.
During a recent visit, the garden featured about 30 okra plants along the inside edges surrounding a variety of tomatoes and cucumbers. Bright orange and purple wildflowers were growing throughout, including Cosmos and nasturtium, which were supplied to local restaurants over the summer.
In the heart of the garden stood a tall, wooden "bean teepee," convenient for growing and harvesting piles of green beans. On the inside of the teepee rests a well-worn straw bale. "Kids like to sit in the center of the teepee and pick green beans," Ms. Neitz said.
Off to the side of the main plot is a 26-square foot herb garden, growing rosemary, parsley, oregano, basil, tarragon, sage, lavender and more. They also boast 25-square feet of blueberries and raspberries, which were just started this year.
The operation of the community garden relies on its volunteers, who meet at the center almost every day over the summer to share in the planting, weeding, and harvesting duties.
"We have quite a cooperative group here," Ms. Neitz said. "It is a fun thing -- a nice, social atmosphere."
In 2012, volunteers logged more than 2,500 hours at the community garden and served over 120 people, distributing more than 700 pounds of food.
"All summer we come down, have picnics and work a little too," said volunteer Stephanie Bliss, who pitches in at the garden with her entire family, including husband Reggie (who is currently designing a logo for the garden), and sons Keegan, 13, and Gabriel, 9.
"I try to bring them here every week to help out, even if it's just picking up sticks, but they also do some shoveling and digging," she said.
Garden managers and volunteers soon will clear out what's leftover in the garden from the summer crop. They'll use some of that space to put in about 100 garlic plants, which can be harvested next summer. Students at the nearby Montessori Children's Community school will help out. In February, they'll start to grow seedlings that can be planted next spring.
On a cool, drizzly Wednesday in September (with the growing and harvesting season drawing to a close), the farmers market nevertheless offered baskets of gleaming orange, yellow, and red cherry tomatoes, carrots still dotted with dirt from being recently pulled from the ground, bunches of dark green basil, radishes, oranges and apples.
"People really are excited to try new things," said volunteer Autumn Redcross.
"And they get to see where food started. It doesn't always come from a jar."
Feedback from the local community so far has been great. "They love it," said Mrs. Bliss. "We have regulars who come every week. By now, we even know what they are looking for."
Not only does the farmers market offer fresh and free produce, but volunteers regularly assemble bags of breads, fruits, and vegetables and deliver them to local elderly folks who are unable to make the trip to the market.
"We are really trying to meet people's needs much more actively than when we first started," Ms. Neitz said. "Our focus has been on hunger.
"This issue has been much more prominent lately."
According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, more than 164,000 people in Allegheny County are food insecure -- meaning that their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.
In addition to the produce that is grown on site, the farmer's market also receives donations from local businesses such as the Coraopolis Cash Market, Breadworks Bakery, Mediterra Food Company, and Robinson's Home and Garden, who have been donating seeds and gardening supplies since the garden began in 2008. Some produce donations come from private gardeners as well.
Ms. Neitz said that they are looking to hold a fundraiser in the future for a better irrigation system. They are also hoping to sell T-shirts and tote bags.
More information about Sewickley Community Center's Food Pantry Garden can be found at www.facebook.com/sewickleyfoodpantrygarden
First Published October 18, 2012 5:35 am