Parish members at St. Alphonsus Liguori Church in Prospect Heights have a catchy name for one of their hands-on ministries; they call it the Garden of Eatin'.
"We grow produce so that we can help provide fresh vegetables for the clients that use our food pantry," says Shirley Runge of Prospect Heights, who leads the volunteer group.
St. Alphonsus maintains a food pantry that distributes to clients the first and third Saturday of every month. Families live in either Wheeling or Prospect Heights, and lately nearly 150 families per month have been coming, officials said.
Their garden produces so many vegetables that they have been able to donate some to the Wheeling Township Food Pantry as well, where coordinator Mary Ann Hernandez says their numbers are up.
"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."
The garden at St. Alphonsus is located behind the church, on some of their expansive property that stretches near the Woodland Creek, and within view of the school's playground.
This year, volunteers drew members of the Men's Club to help prepare the soil, as well as donations from merchants such as Pesche's Garden Center in Des Plaines, Red's Garden Center in Northbrook and Home Depot and Costco, both in Mount Prospect.
To help with maintaining the garden, church members draw on several of its ministries, Runge says, from the schoolchildren and members of the Scout troops, to adult groups. Of course, she adds, they can always use more help.
Their plantings include plenty of tomatoes, onions and a variety of peppers. But they also have some strawberry plants and an herb garden.
While the weather this summer has provided some challenges -- with the extreme heat and rainfall -- parish gardeners have left nothing to chance. They installed a watering system by burying a soaker hose.
"That has saved us from having to carry out all the water across the parking lot," Runge says.
Runge says having a food pantry on site has heightened the awareness among parishioners of the need right in their own backyard. Providing struggling families with nutritious, fresh vegetables is something they figured they could do.
"We have lots of drives for nonperishable food items, and lately we've been collecting school supplies," Runge says, "but families can always use the fresh vegetables."
Hernandez over Wheeling Township's food pantry, agrees, adding that her clients know they are getting produce picked right out of the garden.
"They love the fresh fruits and vegetables and are constantly asking about them," Hernandez says.
Wheeling Township's food pantry serves draw nearly 300 individuals per month, which is much higher than prior years. Residents come from Arlington Heights, Wheeling, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights and a portion of Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines.