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updated: 2/8/2011 11:40 AM

Giving Garden produce boxes overflow with fresh vegetables

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  • Fresh vegetable donations help clients who can't otherwise afford produce at the grocery store.

      Fresh vegetable donations help clients who can't otherwise afford produce at the grocery store.

By Eileen O. Daday

Vegetable gardening may be winding down this summer, but fresh produce continues to pour into area food pantries from those participating in the Daily Herald Giving Garden campaign.

Take the Northern Illinois Food Bank headquarters in St. Charles, which serves 665 food assistance sites in 13 Northern Illinois counties.

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On a recent Monday, after a weekend filled with rain and bright sunshine, the food bank drew more than 700 pounds of vegetables - in one day.

They included boxes of, tomatoes, rhubarb, beets, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini and corn, and advanced the total amount of produce donated since June to more than 5,000 pounds from individual gardeners.

Partner agencies go through the St. Charles warehouse every half-hour to choose what non-perishables they want delivered.

But the fresh produce they hand pick and bring back personally to their food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, group homes and children's feeding sites.

"It's wonderful to be able to offer our agencies the chance to pick fresh produce," says Sarah Slavenas, a spokeswoman for the food bank. "They're always grateful. It can be difficult for families to afford fresh produce, and this gives them a way to introduce new fruits and vegetables that they might not otherwise try."

Food pantry coordinators throughout the region report this summer's extreme weather conditions, including sustained heat and above average rain totals, to be ideal conditions for producing bumper vegetable crops.

"We got tons this year," reports Nancy Lech, food pantry coordinator for Fremont Township in Mundelein, "a real abundance."

Part of this year's bounty came from a community garden developed right on the administration center's grounds. Avid gardener David Frost of Diamond Lake drew startup seed and vegetable plant contributions from Lake County businesses, such as Mini Earth Greenhouses in Grayslake, Ace Hardware and Grayslake Feed Company.

Congregation members from St. Andrew's Lutheran Church and The Chapel, both in Mundelein pitched in to plant and maintain the garden, as well harvest its produce in recent weeks.

They have produced enough to donate to a pair of food pantries, including the one at Fremont Township and the Community Care Center in Mundelein operated by The Chapel members.

"There was a need and this was one way to respond to it," Frost says. "I hope to double its size next year and get more people from the community involved."

Over at the Lisle Township food pantry, coordinator Jim Vondran drew local gardeners to make regular contributions of their excess vegetables and herbs.

"It went well for most of the summer," Vondran says. "We had lots of cucumbers and squash, as well as several types of herbs and basil. It's always very popular with our clients, and goes out the same day it comes in."

Lisa Ayala of the Salvation Army in Elgin echoes those same sentiments.

Her food pantry site drew consistent donations of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers, including bell peppers and jalapeño peppers.

"People really need food right now. It's such a needy time, with people trying to make ends meet, and not having enough money for food," Mead says.

"As soon as the vegetables come in, they're gone."

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