Kokomo resident Julie Beheler and her daughter Anna, 12, pause to wipe their brows and blink the dust from their eyes as they harvest kale and cucumbers from the city’s community garden. They’re not picking for themselves, however; the vegetables will be distributed to 12 nonprofit agencies in the Kokomo area.
Julie Beheler and her daughter Anna volunteer in a Kokomo, Ind., community garden because the produce benefits a dozen local charities. Last season, volunteers gave nearly 1,500 hours to the Kokomo garden and harvested more than 17,000 pounds of produce.
Unlike most of the volunteers at the garden that morning, Julie is not a home gardener, but she likes the lessons the garden teaches: "This feeds people here in our community," she explains. "We can get a little sweaty and dirty for someone else. Giving back is a good thing to teach a kid."
And Anna, who usually can’t be pried out of bed, "pops right up on garden day," her mother adds. The seventh-grader agrees, "It’s just fun."
The work may be fun, but the garden’s dual purpose is serious—to help stock local food banks and to serve as an educational outdoor laboratory. The project was established in spring 2003 as a joint effort of Purdue Extension Howard County, Ivy Tech Community College-Kokomo and the Howard County Master Gardeners Association.
The garden yielded just over 17,000 pounds of vegetables in 2009, up more than 1,000 pounds from the previous year’s harvest. With this year’s total, more than 50 tons of produce have been donated over seven growing seasons. "We have a big need," says team leader Dave Mason, a Master Gardener who has been involved since the beginning. "And everybody here has a big heart."
Community answers the call
The "big need" and "big heart" are recurring themes around the state as fallout from the economic recession keeps demand at food banks running high. Howard County is just one of the many Indiana communities where Purdue Extension and Master Gardeners are providing the leadership to expand or start community gardens, marshal volunteers and provide the educational resources to meet the growing need.
"It’s a true community effort," says Paul Marcellino, Purdue Extension agriculture and natural resources educator in Howard County. Ivy Tech donated and fenced the acre of land behind its Kokomo facility and employs Cindy Rush part time as community garden coordinator. Purdue Extension promotes the garden, provides growing expertise, and tracks volunteer hours and production statistics. Area businesses donate everything from seeds to one day’s use of a tractor to bottled water for the volunteers. "The organizations that donate aren’t all in the business of gardening," Rush says, "but they’re all in the business of helping."
Given the county’s 19-percent unemployment rate, the community garden provides vital assistance to the needy. Throughout the growing season, Fresh Start Ministries Director Donna Mohler comes every Monday, picks up her vegetables and returns to the ministry’s kitchen to begin cooking a Tuesday meal for about 90 homeless people. She plans the menu around what the community garden supplies, and what she doesn’t use, she cans or freezes for use all winter. "It’s been a godsend," says Mohler, who estimates the garden cuts her grocery bill by about a third. "Plus, it’s fresh and nutritious."