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LIFE GARDEN how to organize community garden for foodbank food pantry soup kitchen
how to organize community garden for foodbank food pantry soup kitchen

How to Organize a Community Garden for a Food Pantry

by Mary Jasch

Food banks and pantries today can be a lot more than a place to hash out donated – and often leftover, unwanted – food to the hungry. Right in tune with the current ecological-minded climate from “green buildings to green bodies,” they often infuse teaching the hungry how to grow their own nutritious food, how to cook it and sometimes spark careers in food.

So it is at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which operates a soup kitchen, culinary school and catering service that employs the school’s students. They also run a 30 plot, organic community garden open to neighborhood residents and pantry patrons, with dedicated space to grow food for the soup kitchen.

“We see good food as a tool for not only ending hunger but equipping people with the skills to feed themselves and it can be a tool for building healthier, stronger communities. So we’re all about food,” says Lisanne Finston, executive director.

Community gardens connected to soup kitchens, food banks and pantries come in many guises, either onsite or nearby. Entire gardens with volunteers, such as those at the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey/Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township, both in New Jersey, grow food specifically for their Emergency Food Organization (EFO). At other gardens, volunteers grow dedicated sections for an EFO.

Jan Zientek, Senior Program Coordinator, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, organizes community gardens. He says gardening is the easiest part of creting a community garden. He offers these tips:

Finding collaborators. “That’s probably the hardest, most time consuming part. It’s a community garden, not an individual garden, so you have to find a group to work with. Find a way to connect with the community, to find like-minded souls to organize.”

Location. Some issues are: Who owns the land? What access can be provided to the gardeners?

Water. “Water is another issue. Potential sites may be next to buildings but water costs money, so you have to negotiate. If you’re working in an urban county, water is limited; its access is limited and it comes with a price.”

At Elijah’s Promise, gardeners relied on rain water collected in barrels last year. This year, the city is turning the area into a park and will install a water source. (Could it have been those beautiful garden plots that motivated the city?)

Community gardens can invest money to bring in a water meter and line and run it to a garden. Municipalities usually provide water for a community garden on public land. Churches and schools willing to have a community garden usually provide access to water.

Insurance. If a garden is on public land, it’s already covered with a certain amount. A town may construct a license to garden which defines the relationship between gardeners and town and which protects the city from injuries. Some towns have a steering committee that organizes work and clean-up crews.

Fees. With a limited number of spaces and often a waiting list of potential gardeners, a fee per plot is in order. It helps support the garden with fencing and tools.

Elijah’s Promise charges $10/bed fee, waived for low income people. “We use that as a way for people to demonstrate their commitment,’ says Finston. “We found that people, even when they’re down and out, when they really want something, find a way to come up with that small down payment. They take it a lot more seriously. We have experienced that some gesture of commitment, and usually money is a pretty good gesture, really helps to seal the deal.”

Workshops. Many gardens offer classes on gardening to help people grow their own food well, which helps maintain the health of the entire garden in return. NJAES runs workshops at community gardens with 10 sessions from March to September comprised of classroom lectures and actual time in the garden. At Elijah’s Promise, Master Gardeners and Rutgers Cooperative Extension offer three classes/gatherings a season, plus an initial seed swap.

Levels of Skill. “On walks through the garden, people asked when they should harvest tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers or whatever vegetable. They were able to grow things but didn’t know when to harvest them. So gardening experience and knowledge is an important factor to consider when organizing a garden. Folks may be real good gardeners or they may just like the idea of being in a garden but don’t know anything about gardening.”

Maintenance. As a collective project, there is a need for guiding principles such as good sanitation and good cultivation techniques to eliminate the necessity of chemical controls.

“Some people are good neighbors and others aren’t. There are folks who tend their garden and weed it and there are others who get excited in the beginning and who let it go to hell. One of those beds in a community garden can become a source of pest and insect problems. People become concerned about that. It’s just common problems when you’re working with groups of people with different experiences and time available to do the work.”

Responsibilities. “The biggest thing is to come up with a structure in which folks can govern themselves and understand the need for rules - bylaws of the garden so people know the rules before they engage in the garden. It’s easier, then, to maintain some semblance of order.”

Hurdles. “From my experience, the biggest thing to stop community gardens in their tracks is finding that group of people who are going to commit to the time to put it together and get it off the ground. The physical aspect is the simplest thing.”

Critter exclusions. “That’s an expense that folks don’t count on.” You can get away with nylon fencing to start: 10 foot high netting. Groundhog/rabbit control means trenching and chicken wire.

More hurdles. “Folks in one town encountered a lot of resistance from folks because they didn’t like the aesthetics of a vegetable garden. They were afraid it was going to look like a mess. Folks who you think would be your natural allies might not turn out to be so inclined. Vegetable gardening maybe just seems too utilitarian or too common, I guess.”

Gleaning. Some new gardeners don’t know when to harvest. They leave produce on the vines to rot, waste, and attract insects. One garden’s bylaws state that if you want your produce, you have until Saturday morning to harvest it. Anything there Saturday afternoon would be collected and donated to the foodbank. “The reasoning was explained why, and it kind of bent some people’s noses out of place, but generally it had 85-95% support,” says Zientek.

Organic or Not. Zientek, a lifelong organic gardener, recognizes that conventional gardeners still use chemical controls. The issue of drift arises. “One of the issues when you mix unknown individuals in a community garden is what they’re spraying next to each other’s beds. When you use chemical controls you need to know what’s being applied and when so it’s appropriate to eat the food. When you mix conventional and organic gardeners, you’re relying on the level of knowledge that other gardeners have when they’re applying chemicals.” The Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and Elijah’s Promise grow only organic gardens.

Ways to structure:
- offer introductory garden classes at the foodbank to generate interest
- make classes mandatory (wealth of knowledge, gardening skills are limiting factors)
- one requirement for getting a plot is to donate some produce to food bank or help work part of a collective stretch of the garden
- have a dedicated garden and use it as teaching tool to groups whose members work in the garden

Says Finston: “So much of what comes to the EFO is, frankly, other people’s discards, giveaways and things they don’t want. It’s the mentality that something’s better than nothing. Gleaning, in its original context in terms of Biblical and other early cultures... There were two kinds of gleaning. One was the end of the season or harvest – leave the edges of your fields for those who are hungry and poor to come and to pick food. Then there were those growers who allowed the gleaners the first fruits of the field. So before the harvest began those who were hungry and poor were allowed to come in and have the first pick of the harvest, then the harvest took place. The reality is the second approach is the more just, humane approach to food.

“If we set up a community garden in a way so that a portion of what is grown and cultivated is shared with those who are hungry and poor, I think we create a model that is of benefit for all of us.”

**Interested in starting a community garden? This Thursday, March 3, at The Frelinghuysen Arboretum: 2011 Community Garden Conference 9-4:30. Check it out here.

Elijah’s Promise:
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County:
Food grower-food pantry network:

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published March 01, 2011

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Early spring at Elijah's Promise community garden in New Brunswick, NJ. Photo courtesy of Elijah's Promise

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