Tending the community: Township garden supplements food pantries with fresh produce

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When the idea for a community garden was first conceived, Vernon Township Community Engagement Director Stacy Nielsen envisioned how-to classes for planting, growing, harvesting and recipes using fresh produce would all be part of the concept. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, classes were canceled, but the garden remains.

The idea began to take shape when Nielsen was hired in September 2019.
“There was talk about what projects for community engagement look like, and one of the things brought up was a community garden,” Nielsen said. “We had to find a place to put it.”

Nielsen learned where the utilities were and received feedback from a local farmer on the best place to put a garden. The township building at 700 W. Broadway, Fortville, had some extra land, and so the ground was tilled last fall and Nielsen began to gauge community interest.
Approximately 40 people attended a call-out meeting, and despite the pandemic, the township filled all but two of the 23 community plots, which are 5-by-10 feet and can be planted for a $20 deposit. If gardeners clean the plot at the end of the season, they receive their deposit back.

In addition to the community plots, the township took over six plots to cultivate vegetables to fill three local food pantries. The local master gardeners, the Purdue Extension and a Future Farmers of America student Lillie Fronek partnered to bring the plan to fruition.

Fronek is using the endeavor as one of her FFA projects at Mt. Vernon High School.

“I’ve been running most of the actual gardening and overseeing and helping people with what they need or answering any questions they might have to try to guide them in the right direction,” Fronek said. “I’ve always loved gardening, and the food goes to help people, especially in these times. When people need food, we can give them fresh produce.”

The garden was made possible through a $1,000 Purdue Extension grant that allowed the township to purchase gardening supplies.

Food from the township’s six plots will benefit the Fortville Christian Church food pantry, Angel Connection and Mainstreet Food Pantry.

Normally, approximately 50 people use the Fortville Christian Church food pantry each Tuesday. However, the number has been closer to 130 during the pandemic.

“This is our first year, so the harvest really will just start coming in,” Fortville Christian Church food pantry director Erin Flick said. “The past few years we have had a few local community members ask, ‘Did you guys want vegetables?’ But it was never enough to feed everybody that comes through, so this year, the way things are looking, we will have a couple (times) all this produce was from the community garden.”

As part of the grant requirements, the township must log volunteer hours and the amount of produce harvested and donated to pantries.

“We tried to keep everything in the garden stuff people would know or understand what it was, or at least have some familiarity with it,” Nielsen said.

In the future, the township wants to conduct cooking classes to show those in need how to cook fresh produce provided by the community garden. 

Fortville Christian Church opens its food pantry from 1 to 3 p.m. each Tuesday. Soon, produce will be provided from Vernon Township’s community garden. (Submitted photo)

‘A great partner’

As part of the grant from Purdue Extension, local food pantries received 300 packets of seeds. Some were flowers but most were vegetables.

“I passed those out as people came through the food pantry, and I think that every person who came through got three,” Fortville Christian Church food pantry director Erin Flick said.

Purdue Extension has been a valued asset.

“They’ve been a great partner,” Vernon Township Community Engagement Director Stacy Nielsen said. “A lot of what they do is about nutrition education, and the grant was based on understanding what food security looks like and the impact of that in this community. Purdue Extension was motivated to have fresh food in all of our homes.”


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