An historic neighborhood association near downtown Arlington Heights has taken on a new project this summer: a victory garden.
For the first time, they leased one of the community plots offered by the Arlington Heights Park District, with the goal of raising fresh produce to contribute to the Wheeling Township Food Pantry.
Leslie Meredith, who works full time and is a single mother, is the driving force behind the garden.
She says she hatched the idea when she saw a neighbor walking back from the nearby Farmer's Market with fresh vegetables. She wished everyone could get the nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"I envisioned a community service project for the neighborhood to get behind," Meredith says, "of helping kids and families learn a little bit more about gardening and where their food comes from, while helping out the food pantry."
Still, she concedes, she had no idea how big a task it was that she was launching, from the preparing the soil and planting in the spring, to the weekly tasks of weeding and watering.
"I had no idea how big a 25 by 30 foot plot was," Meredith quips.
Recently, however, they made their first donation to the food pantry of fresh lettuce and spinach. Suddenly, their load is a little lighter, she says.
Officials at Wheeling Township's food pantry love getting the produce straight out of the garden, and so do their clients.
"They love the fresh fruits and vegetables and are constantly asking about them," says Mary Ann Hernandez, food pantry coordinator. "I think it's wonderful, knowing this is coming from the goodness of residents' hearts. It's a real bounty!"
Wheeling Township's food pantry serves residents from Arlington Heights, Wheeling, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights and a portion of Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines.
Hernandez says they draw nearly 300 individuals per month, which is much higher than prior years.
"People are still out of work," she says, "and for most of them, they've depleted their savings, so they're relying on us to help."
Meredith hopes to entice more adults to come out and get their hands dirty in the garden, and feel the satisfaction of returning to the earth -- and helping others. But in the meantime, she manages with the help of several children coming out regularly.
"I tried to plant things I knew," Meredith says of the first-time effort.
Consequently, the garden features tomatoes, string beans, squash and corn as well as pumpkins, which she admits they added for fun.
Their community plot is located at Frontier Park, in the northwest quadrant of Arlington Heights. Its multicolored tomato cages are easy to spot, along with a mailbox perched on top of a stake, with news for neighborhood residents who come out.
"I never was into gardening before, but I'm learning by doing," Meredith says. "Hopefully others will join me, so we can break down any misconceptions or fear they have of gardening."