Helping the hungry grow healthy

Corps and community grow a garden in McMinnville, Ore.

by Christin Davis –

Suzanne weighs and records the harvested produce. [Photo by Bev Norman]

With a small corps building on four acres of land, The Salvation Army in McMinnville, Ore., decided to put the extra earth to good use. In 2003, they started a community garden to provide fresh produce for the corps’ food pantry, which feeds community members in need.

“The community garden enables us to provide fresh vegetables, and in some cases fresh fruit, to the people we serve,” said Major Dennis Trimmer, McMinnville corps officer with his wife, Diana. “We also train those involved to produce their own food, both here and at home.”

Since January 2008, the garden has produced over 1,600 pounds of zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, squash, broccoli, herbs, and more, allowing the underprivileged in the community to prepare more nutritious meals. The garden is generally harvested three times a week, yielding 150 pounds of produce each time. Families can come to the corps any day and select fresh produce from the designated bins; they also receive a prepared box of canned and boxed food once a month. A daily average of 12 households receive fresh produce from the community garden.

In August, 380 households with roughly 1,329 people received food from the McMinnville Corps. Over the past six months, an average of 332 households a month received food from The Salvation Army in McMinnville.

A sprouting garden
“We wanted to offer something from a Christian standpoint that would help feed people in healthy ways, help them learn skills to become more self-sufficient, perhaps provide a new hobby for them and also contribute to the community’s health through improved nutrition,” said Jan Noland, who helped start the garden with her husband Gary. “The vision has always been to help the hungry grow healthy.”

Built by volunteers, the garden has grown considerably in the last five years. It is now a partnered venture with the Yamhill County Master Gardeners, and receives support from them.

Current coordinators, Bev and David Norman, became involved in the spring of 2007 while taking a master gardeners course that required community service for completion.

“We wanted to be a part of a garden that feeds people,” Bev Norman said. “The Salvation Army puts fresh food on the shelves of the food pantry.”

After a few months of volunteering in the community garden, they believed in the project—and the help that it provides people—and took responsibility. The Normans formed a committee to oversee the garden and have collective ownership over its progress.

“We want to keep the focus on the garden’s aimto feed people in need,” Norman said.

A communal effort
The garden is fully supported and maintained by volunteers. In the month of August, 23 different people volunteered 332 hours working in the garden. A master gardener is also present at the weekly workdays (Tuesdays and Saturdays) to provide instruction.

Last winter, the master gardeners taught how to garden in cold weather for the first time and the group harvested wheelbarrows of cabbage-like kale in the snow.

“You do not need to know how to garden to be a member,” Norman said. “We teach people everything they need to know and the master gardener is always there to help.”

Anyone can participate in the general pantry gardening. For those who want to grow food on their own, personal rows measuring 100 square feet are rented for an annual fee of $15, which includes plants, seeds and instruction as needed. The personal gardeners also commit, in addition to taking care of their own row, to eight hours of monthly gardening on the general food pantry rows.

The current 16 personal row gardeners have harvested over 800 pounds of fresh produce since January 2008a sizeable portion of which they donated to the food pantry.

Tending the plot
The Normans retired business professionalsand the new committee brought in additional master gardeners to put their green-thumb training into practice, increased advertising to attract more personal row gardeners, and worked with the news media to increase the public’s knowledge of the garden. Due to their efforts, the garden is now for the first time in over five years fully self-supporting.

“This year, the corps won’t even have to pay the water bill,” Norman said.

The garden committee does accept donations, but believes a big part of its success is in earning its own money. They sell plants and flowers to a local florist and farmer’s market, yielding over $800 this year. A local restaurant also buys an unlimited supply of herbs from the garden for $100 per season.

The community garden recently received a $4000 grant from Garden Enhanced Nutrition Education (GENE), a program run through Oregon State University. The money paid for a fiberglass greenhouse, which was installed in mid-September and will now allow more food to be grown from seed year-round. The grant money will also help the gardeners upgrade the water system to alleviate leaks and provide automation.

Produce for the soul
“When I am out in the community and mention that I help coordinate The Salvation Army community garden, people instantly respond,” Norman said. “They take notice when they drive down Second Street, past The Salvation Armythey know something is going on there.”

If leftover food remains in the pantry at the end of the day, the Army makes sure it gets to local food banks and soup kitchens before it spoils.

“With the economy bad right now though, food is going fast,” Norman said. “But the garden also helps spark the heart of generosity when people know it is helping others be fed more nutritiously.”

She recalled a farmer who was going to sell them bales of hay to use between the rows until he found out it was for the Army’s garden; then he donated it. A landscaper arrived one day with enriched soil to contribute; Western Oregon Waste supplies compost soil every year; a local mushroom farmer said he would donate mushroom compost whenever it’s needed.

“People have a better understanding of what The Salvation Army does in the community as a whole because of this garden,” Trimmer said. “They come to this building and are around our ministry. Some of the gardeners’ kids have even become involved in our youth ministry over the years.”

Normanlike all the gardeners involvedenjoy the hobby. “My mom always said, ‘Gardening is good for the soul,’ and it really is,” she said.

They would all agree that gardening is even better when it feeds the hungry.

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