As a volunteer for the Luke 3:11 Share Center – a food pantry served by Northern Illinois Food Bank – Rachel Fahrenbach was excited about the prospect of hosting a community garden for people they serve. The pantry had been approached by the Food Bank about participating in its Garden Connect Program, which encourages people facing hunger to participate in growing fresh produce through community gardens.
She was a bit nervous, however, about actually tending part of the garden herself. She didn’t have any prior experience. But Rachel and her husband had recently adopted a child, and the financial strain was making it difficult to make ends meet so Rachel decided to use the services the pantry provided. She set aside her fears, put on her gardening gloves and dug in. It’s a decision she’s very glad she made.
“The garden helped me provide healthier food for my family last summer,” Rachel said. “And it did supplement my grocery bill. We saved so much money from it – but beyond money, it gave me a chance to meet members of my community and help my kids see the value in growing their own food.”
Rachel was one of six families who participated in Luke 3:11 Share Center’s community garden program last year – its initial year.
“Having a community garden had always been a dream of ours,” said Kelly VanHoveln, a share center volunteer who spearheaded the project. “We thought it was a great way to not only encourage healthy eating, but to help the people we serve raise their own food so that they could rely on using the pantry less.”
As part of the program, each participating family was given two raised beds to tend. They also received hands-on help from volunteer Master Gardeners who guided them through planting, tending and harvesting. Throughout the summer, they brought home the fruits of their harvest, which included cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini. Any surplus produce was donated to the food pantry for other people to enjoy.
This summer, Kelly plans on expanding the garden program. “We are fortunate enough to have a volunteer property manager this year who will also manage the garden,” Kelly said. “She has tons of great ideas, from improving pest control, to harvesting the fruit trees on our property and of course, increasing the number of families who participate in the program.”
Based on her experience last summer, Rachel says she’ll definitely tend plots with her family again this year – and she encourages anyone with a similar opportunity to take advantage of it. “If there’s a community garden where you live, go for it,” she says.
“It’s a huge learning experience but completely worth it. You gain a better appreciation of the things you’re eating, and it’s fun to be part of a community learning together. Gardening, in my experience, is not only [a] way to nurture the health of your family, but a way to nurture the health of your community as well.”
Bringing fresh produce to local communities, providing nutritional education and teaching self-sufficiency are central tenants to many food bank programs across the Feeding America network. If you are interested to know whether there is a community garden or similar programs near you, contact your local food bank.