Growing An Urban Community Garden For The Poor

Learn how growing an urban community garden can be beneficial. When several families get together to plant and tend a garen for the poor, everybody benefits.

"Sure, I want to help make a garden for the poor again this year--just please not in my backyard!" says the blond, 12-year-old wheeling around on his bike. But the truth is that Peter will pitch in as readily as serious, sixteen-year-old Michael or playful young Chris F., eight, when the tools come out. The garden "for the poor" will grow because for over six years these young people and their families, 25 to 30 people ranging in age from three to sixty-three, have been learning the new meaning of "community gardening."

That meaning has to do with gospel values--loving your neighbor, feeding the poor. In the largest backyard of the group, Peter's family's country backyard, the parents and children grow a 50-foot by 60-foot garden every year. In early spring they get together to plan what crops to plant. One dad, the owner of a power-operated tiller, tills up the ground, and every pitches in to lay out the garden, make rows and plant seeds.

Although they work this large garden plot together each May to October and do it successfully, the members of Cana, a small faith community who get together from three area towns in southeastern Connecticut to meet, have fun, and help feed the hungry, they never get to taste its produce. That's because these vegetables are purposefully grown for, delivered to, and sometimes even cooked for--the poor of Norwich Diocese at St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchens in both Middletown and Norwich, CT.

"As Catholic families trying to live by the gospel, with a big patch of tilled land behind one of their houses, they felt they "didn't have a choice, when we knew there were people going hungry," says Lynn, mother of four. This group of three generations of "Gospel believers" has been gathering to grow their faith, their relationships as families and a spirit of community for years.

It's that sense of community that is the prime harvest of a garden for the poor,believes Joanne, mother of three teen-agers. Daughter Marie, 14, liked working in the garden on her family's assigned weeks because "it got us all together," even her older sister and brother, whose college and high school activities often keep them away from home.

"The bonus is knowing that we're actually helping someone while having a good time," adds Joanne. As a Case Manager for the State of Connecticut Dept. of Mental Retardation in the Norwich area, Joanne knows of many who stretch modest incomes by dining at the Norwich Soup Kitchen. Each year an average of $300-$500 worth of produce gets to the soup kitchen from the little farming Community. Barbara Bellone, Director of Community Ministries for the Diocese says such gifts go far to feed the 150 daily patrons.

"Senior citizens with limited resources particularly enjoy the surplus table of summer veggies for take-homes," says Bellone.

Making the trek to the Soup Kitchen to deliver those veggies is the best part of the project for Jason Williams, 14. "When you actually meet the people, learn their names and help carry baskets in with them, they become real. It's really cool." Jason's grandfather Joe recalls feeling "not so cool" when working on the hottest days of summer to weed and mulch the stands of broccoli, carrots, beets, onions and squash. "Pretty humbling," Joe says, "and it costs a lot more than writing a quick check for the same purpose. Gardening for the poor really makes you stop and think."

Lizz D., mother of four, agrees. "Connecting to the earth, getting your hands dirty is the fun part. But I always go home with plenty to think about. Looking inside yourself isn't so easy."

Reflection on what they're doing is a familiar part of the routine for this group, whether plans for the day include a session of religious education of young and old alike, gardening together, or a day of cooperative games and fun. This energetic young community also invites families in to share in their monthly prayer and play days, and have put on many parish workshops and family retreats over the years.

Kids complain should they have to miss the gardening and other events the group shares in. Older teens are affected by this ongoing project in surprising ways, too. Erin, 16, plans to serve Christmas dinner at the Soup Kitchen one day. Mike, also 16, especially enjoys the processing and cooking of the vegetables into choice dishes, like a hundred butternut squash halves filled with brown sugar and butter that they delivered to be baked for the next day's meal. Mike's interest in the kitchen has expanded to the point where he is now researching culinary schools for post-high school study.

Ten-year-old Lauren, on the other hand, is focussed on the garden and happy to stay there. Lauren's gone from planting a row of flowers in her family garden with cousin Val, 14, to starting her own seeds for a personal garden full of spinach, onions and squash, some of which will find its way into the baskets earmarked for the Soup Kitchen. Val and Lauren were thrilled when a section of flowers, "to bring beauty to the poor" was added to the annual garden for the poor.

Each year one family takes responsibility for planning and designing a calendar of "Chores" for families to volunteer for until the harvest. On a selected Sunday all get together to till, plant, and water. Later comes the harder work of weeding, mulching and harvesting. With every chore comes a lesson well learned. For example, weather or other conditions might make it necessary for the family physically closest to the garden plot to fill in for someone previously scheduled, hence, Peter's plea at the top of our story. But life is like that, full of stories like those of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Sower, giving this community's gardening extra meaning.

While the families admit that growing hundreds of pounds of vegetables for St. Vincent's is not a simple or easy task, they always add a creative splash to make their efforts fun. For example, once they researched and grew only plants of the Bible. Another time they created a Native American garden complete with directional flags and round hill plantings of traditional Indian corn, beans and squash. One year an adult member interviewed the man who had come to St. Vincent de Paul's hungry and who advanced over the months to position of chef.

"Which vegetables would you especially appreciate?" they asked him.

Liz S., mother of three, recalls the tears in the gruff man's eyes as Cana people handed over two big baskets of his requested kale for the next batch of soup. "Southern style at last!" the chef exclaimed happily.

Young Chris D., 11, still remembers those colored Indian flags blowing in the breeze, one at each side of the garden marking North, East, South and West. Perhaps for him, and for others, those flags signified something bigger than all of us, a world of need and feeding, a world of trouble and relief, a world where the seed must fall on good ground if it is to grow and bear fruit. Community members admit to both struggles and laughs along the way, but most of them believe they have gained far more for themselves than for those who are merely physically nourished by the food they grow.

Ann, mother of two, remembers how tickled her family was when they got to bring their "Fresh Air" guest child for some garden-tending hours. "What always amazed me was that these tiny seeds, stuck into the earth in such a simple way, would eventually give us all that food."

If a portion of Ann's sense of wonder filters down to Shanequa and the other Cana kids, the Garden for the Poor should continue blossoming and nurturing for a long time to come. What if every family got together with others and grew a garden for the poor? What would the world be like? And who would be hungry?

Folks interested in growing a garden for the poor can start small--get two or three families together, choose a 20 by 20 -foot plot in one yard and till it up two or three times. Plant seeds of such useful vegtables as carrots, beans, squash and spinach, and tend the garden one week at a time assigned to each family. Be sure and plan a celebration each time a crop is harvested and delivered to a soup kitchen or local pantry for the poor. Enjoy the feedback and the results of your toil--you deserve it!

© High Speed Ventures 2011