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Pantry perishables: Local gardens benefit food pantries

A turnip seedling is among hundreds of plants in the Naperville Park District's community garden on West Street that will be tended by master gardeners in the coming months, and then harvested for low-income families served by the Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry.  |  Susan Frick Carlman~For Sun-Times Media
An extra-large patch of fertile soil was earmarked at the West Street community garden plots for master gardeners to use for planting crops to give to the Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry. So far, just cold-tolerant items such as kohlrabi, sweet potatoes and spinach have been planted. Yet to come are carrots, cucumbers, celery, beets and many other crops that prefer warmer days.  |  Susan Frick Carlman
Illustrating community farming with a purpose, master gardeners have tended beds in the West Street plots and the raised-bed micro farm behind the former Kraft Foods plant at Ogden and Jefferson avenues, now Mondelez Global LLC, for the past several growing seasons.  |  Susan Frick Carlmen~Sun-Times Media

It’s a growing phenomenon.

As the risk of frost goes away with the coming of mid-May, the season when food and flowers flourish locally is upon us. In a variety of places, the former is being raised with some extra in the rows, for sharing.

“I think it is catching on,” said Jane Macdonald of the trend that increasingly is finding vegetable growers willing to put some extra seed to soil, with the aim of passing along the bounty to local hunger relief.

Macdonald, director of client engagement for the Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry in Naperville, said the agency is fortunate to have well-established partnerships that yield donations from Wagner Farms, Mayneland Farm and the Green Earth Institute — “the people that are actually farming within the city limits.”

Farmers in surrounding communities also have been sharing the harvest with the less fortunate for many years. The Farm, which has retail farmstands operating seasonally in Westmont and Westchester, has goods picked up six days a week by representatives from assorted church congregations, some working through the faith-based Downers Grove nonprofit Gleaners for the Lord.

“We have a lot of DCFS families,” said Mary Grace Smits, whose husband has owned and run The Farm with his two brothers since 1953.

In some cases, volunteers affiliated with food banks and food pantries come by to pick up the donated produce, some of them taking the yield to the West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge.

“They’ve been fantastic to us over the years,” director Michael McDonnell said of The Farm this week.

That’s been intentional.

“We definitely plant and pick according to having some extras left over,” Smits said.

Masterful yields

In the past few years, the concept of planning for extra yields to give away has extended well beyond the area’s agricultural pros. It includes master gardeners, as well as regular folks with green thumbs.

“I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of people who just walk in with a bag of fresh produce from their garden,” Macdonald said. “It’s just wonderful.”

A group of residents in the Cress Creek neighborhood have donated bumper-crop apples from their trees, she said, and churches sometimes encourage their members to round up their surplus to donate it.

“There’s a lot of wonderful activity in that way,” Macdonald said.

Richard Henschel, a horticulturist with the University of Illinois Extension, said gardeners who grow food in plots they’ve leased in the Naperville Park District’s community garden on West Street often toss surplus or unwanted yield into a centralized spot. There it can be swapped for items more likely to be used in their kitchens or simply left as donations.

“At the end of the day, that box is headed off to the food pantry,” Henschel said.

For the past several years, 40 to 50 certified master gardeners working with the U of I Extension have tended West Street plots specifically designated for helping boost the food pantry’s stores of fresh goods.

“It’s just a great way for them to be able to give back,” said Sarah Navrotski, master gardener program coordinator for the Extension’s DuPage County office.

Scattered sites

On a recent afternoon, several rows in the oversized West Street garden showed sprouted vegetable plants that have grown several inches already. As the days grow longer and warmer, more crops will be planted in rows already labeled for the various species.

Less than a mile and a half northwest of the West Street plots, a second site is tended by the master gardeners for Loaves & Fishes’ hunger relief work. Established in 2011 to help low-income families learn about growing food, the 400-square-foot urban farm behind the Nabisco plant at Ogden and Jefferson avenues is used to raise vegetables for the pantry as well. Macdonald said the oversized raised bed produced about 600 pounds of produce for the pantry last year.

In a perfect world, she said, the pantry would have its own community garden for clients to look after. There’s no open land nearby, however, so families are encouraged to use some of their food assistance at farmers markets. The state of Illinois allows recipients of food stamps and other hunger-prevention aid to patronize growers directly at community markets.

The pantry clients working to get back on their feet also will continue to reap the bounty of the area’s propensity for high crop yields.

“I really think of every pound as power-packed with nutrients,” Macdonald said, “which isn’t always the case with other foods.”

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