Guardian Angels Parish Food Shelf Garden

6 08 2009

by Emily Larson

Cauliflower - by Meredith HartNine thousand pounds of organically-grown fresh produce is no small feat. That number becomes even more impressive when you learn that those nine thousand pounds are not sold at a downtown farmers’ market or attractively packaged and sold at a high-end co-op or grocery store. In this country, it is starting to become apparent that wealth and health are directly linked; more money buys more nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, which are notoriously more expensive. Thus, the poorest in our country have the least access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which are an essential element to any healthy diet. The volunteer-run garden at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale strives to change that. Over the course of the growing season, the Parish Food Shelf Garden donates all of its nine thousand pounds of produce to four food shelves in the St. Paul suburbs.

The garden began 15 years ago by Barb Prokop and Maggie Lindberg in an unexpected way – on two blank pieces of white paper. The two seasoned gardeners connected at a parish retreat during a “personal visioning session” where each person was asked to display where they saw themselves in the next year, and they both transformed their pieces of paper into images of a garden. That year, the now 150 year old church community was adding new landscaping, and Guardian Angels was surrounded by fertile and open land, patiently waiting to become a garden and soothe hungry bellies. Because of the dreams of Barb and Maggie and the abundance of land, a garden was born. “Steward your resources with justice,” Barb told us, and that’s exactly what they did.

Cucumber Flower - by Emily LarsonBarb and Maggie built the garden from the ground up, literally and figuratively. It was a grassroots project involving a few dedicated, passionate and visionary individuals creating a stewardship project for the church, not a decree dictated by church officials. 15 years later, a committee headed by Barb and Maggie manages the garden, recruits and coordinates volunteers and educates the community about the garden. The parish community at-large is squarely behind it. Besides financial support, equipment donations and volunteer efforts, the parish often offers special blessings for the seeds and the fruits of their labor. Barb recalls one year that a volunteer pushed an overflowing wheel-barrow of vegetables down the aisles and to the altar in the middle of mass to receive a blessing. It is clear from speaking to Barb and Maggie how deeply they value the support of their parish, and indeed, the garden would not be possible without it.

We wanted to see the garden and volunteers in action, so we visited on a surprisingly chilly Saturday morning. The gardeners harvest Tuesday mornings and Thursday nights; Saturdays are work days with some harvesting of anything that might spoil before Tuesday. A high fence with wooden gates on each side surrounds the garden in order to keep large and problematic critters out; even in a suburb like Oakdale, deer, raccoons, and even bears can destroy a garden. We explored the garden on our own and took pictures until Barb finished organizing jobs for the volunteers. Barb gave us a tour of the garden, explaining each patch. Long, expertly tied rows of tall, sprawling tomatoes stood next to short and shiny pepper plants, bearing round green peppers or long yellow banana peppers. The middle was a mass of squash plants: huge leaves connected to prickly stems, orange flowers in full bloom, and tiny little squashes growing steadily. The “pot roast patch,” as one volunteer described it with a laugh, stood at the far end, growing potatoes and onions underground. Several long rows stay covered with white cloth to protect from insects. The greatest surprise came when Barb uncovered one row hiding perfect heads of red and green cabbage. The large, crinkly purple-green red cabbage leaves had bright fuchsia veins which were absolutely beautiful, an adjective rarely associated with cabbage.

All Ages Helping Out - by Meredith HartThere were around 15 volunteers that morning. Most of them were older, and many had been coming for years. One woman, however, arrived with three young daughters, all of whom donned gloves and began to work diligently. The woman and her daughters help in the garden because their grandfather volunteers every week and has done so for the past ten years. That morning, we witnessed three generations of a family weeding, tilling, hoeing and washing vegetables to deliver to needy families. Many of the volunteers are experienced gardeners themselves so Barb trusts them to do what needs to be done and guide less experienced people. Volunteers rescued choked sweet potatoes from weeds, picked cucumbers, tied giant green cauliflower leaves to protect the growing flower from the sun, mowed grasses, and roto-tilled a patch of buckwheat into the ground to nourish the soil.

Barb, Maggie, and the garden committee seek to recruit volunteers from within the parish, but also from the greater community. With life’s busy schedules, volunteer consistency is sometimes a challenge and the garden can’t function without them. Because the garden has volunteers of all ages, it creates a venue for the young and old members of the parish community to interact. The majority of the consistent volunteers are older, but church programs actively involve the younger members of the parish in the garden. During the fall and spring there are 100 four-year-olds that come in groups of 10 to plant and harvest potatoes. Barb and Maggie help them by digging the holes, but the kids have the joy of putting them in the ground. Even as seasoned gardeners teach children how to care for the earth and make things grow, the children teach the adults. One day, an older volunteer asked for instruction on picking ripe cantaloupes. Barb’s young son answered the call. He confidently strolled over to the cantaloupe patch and taught his student that was many years his senior about cantaloupe harvesting. Barb told us this story with a reminiscent gleam in her eye as she remembered the behavior of her son and discussed the garden’s ability to bring people together. This garden encourages fellowship, an exchange of ideas, and the opportunity to meet new people in the parish, in addition to the great joy of serving those less fortunate.

We visited Friends in Need in Cottage Grove, one of the food shelves Guardian Angels serves, where we met with Michelle Rageth, the manager and only paid staff of the food shelf. The fresh produce sits right near the entrance to greet the clients and us as soon as we walked in. Since they don’t have refrigerator space for the produce, it has to disappear soon after it arrives, but that’s rarely a problem. Michelle noted that tomatoes and green peppers disappear first, but everything goes eventually because people are so excited for it. In the back store rooms several large freezers store meat from Rainbow and Cub Foods, and palate upon palate of non-perishable food from Second Harvest food bank waits for its turn to feed hungry clients. Volunteers of all ages bustled about filling orders, moving boxes and taking inventory. “We would not be here without our generous volunteers. They’re people with good hearts,” Michelle expressed gratefully. The small building, densely packed with food and compassion, sits on property owned by Marathon Oil, who generously pays rent and utilities for Friends in Need, enabling them to spend more money on food.

Friends in Need donates 46 pounds of food per person of each family that seeks their assistance, an astounding amount that is twice the state average. Normally food shelves prefer cash donations to food as they can buy $9 worth of food for a $1 donation, but Guardian Angels’ garden provides a rare service that a cash donation cannot buy. “We’re bringing something Barb Prokop - by Meredith Hartreally unique to the food shelf that they can’t buy otherwise. This is special,” Barb explained. The people who use the food shelf really need fresh food, but if you’re struggling to make ends meet, you can’t afford fresh produce because it is so expensive.

Michelle gushed about Barb, Maggie, and the Guardian Angels volunteers. “They are amazing to us,” said Michelle, and give “such a gift to our clients.” The food arrives at Friends in Need and goes directly into the hands of grateful clients within a few hours of the morning harvest. Friends in Need greatly values the produce they get from Second Harvest, the food bank where they get most of their food, but it cannot compete with the quality and freshness of Guardian Angel produce. “We have a commitment to sending nutritious food to those who are food insecure,” Barb said, reiterating the garden’s mission.

With 19,000 clients, Friends in Need helps a large client base, and while the parish garden plays an important role, Barb and Maggie are conscious of the overwhelming need in the community their 9,000 pounds of food cannot meet. In one day, “even if you bring 800 pounds in, it doesn’t go far,” and sometimes can vanish within the hour, Barb said. “But it’s a gesture of our awareness of the need. We care. We see we have a role to play in helping.” Barb and Maggie are clearly fueled and motivated by the gratitude they see in the eyes of clients who receive a head of lettuce or a few squash, and listening to them talk about these experiences inspires one to do more. “People need to step forward and see what they can do,” Maggie encouraged, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. It can be as simple as planting an extra row in your garden.

Because of the economic times we live in, it is more important than ever to help in one’s own community. All of us are invariably tied to the communities we live in, and strengthening others in the community strengthens ourselves. “We don’t want to be the only ones doing this,” said Maggie. “It’s important to know your food shelf, know what they need, and know your community.”

Guardian Angels is always looking for volunteers from inside and outside the parish. To share your time and talents, contact Barb at barbaraprokop@gmail.

To view more photos about Guardian Angels, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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