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posted: 9/18/2011 12:01 AM

Garden ministry keeps food pantry clients stocked with produce

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  • Gardeners at Presbyterian Church of Palatine are learning how to grow a few new crops this year, including tomatillos, which can be used in salsa verde.

       Gardeners at Presbyterian Church of Palatine are learning how to grow a few new crops this year, including tomatillos, which can be used in salsa verde.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Mark Hamlen of Presbyterian Church of Palatine looks over his garden that has been fruitful and multiplied many times over to bear harvest to support Giving Garden.

       Mark Hamlen of Presbyterian Church of Palatine looks over his garden that has been fruitful and multiplied many times over to bear harvest to support Giving Garden.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald Correspondent

From its perch at the northeast corner of Rohlwing and Palatine roads, the Presbyterian Church of Palatine is a benchmark to motorists on their way to Palatine High School.

Yet, what they probably don't notice as they drive north on Rohlwing Road are the garden plots that lie just east of the intersection, in the front yard of the church sanctuary.

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For six years, church members have tended the plot exclusively for the purpose of donating fresh vegetables to clients served by the Palatine Township Food Pantry. They have averaged donating 400 pounds each summer, but this year they expect to reach 500.

"This summer has been great for gardens," says Mark Hamlen of Palatine, one of the lead volunteers. "It seemed a little iffy at the beginning with the late, cold and wet spring. But once the summer heat got here, we've done well."

That's a good thing, says Palatine Township Food Pantry Coordinator, Laura Hoover. She says more than 800 families are registered with their food pantry -- twice as many as last year -- though typically they serve an average of 300 families per month.

"The clients have been very grateful for the fresh produce," Hoover says. "And due to the bounty of this year's harvest, each family has been able to choose between three and four bags filled with produce."

Over the years, gardeners like those at the Presbyterian Church have tailored their crops to the vegetables that clients like best, including peppers, Swiss chard and tomatoes. They've even incorporated new varieties, which they have enjoyed trying.

One of them is tomatillos, which appear to be a cross between a pepper and green tomato. Pull back the husk and it reveals a green tomato-like vegetable with pulp and seeds inside that form the prime ingredient for salsa verde.

Hamlen points out that the main garden has six plots, each measuring 100 square feet. Individuals or groups have taken responsibility for different plots, bringing their own techniques with them.

He adds that children in their Christian education team joined in the fun this year, planting a crop of zucchini and green beans in raised beds attached to the front of the church's sanctuary.

Their community garden project even drew the interest of an Eagle Scout candidate. Brian Kadowaki of Palatine, who plans to build raised beds for each of the plots. He figures the protected beds will allow gardeners a chance to start their spring planting sooner and possibly extend their fall growing season.

The mixed age groups drawn to the garden project has impressed their new interim pastor, the Rev. Donald Dempsey. He cites it as one of the ministries that makes the congregation what he calls a "missional church," or one that goes out of its way to serve the wider community.

"I see the church's garden as a place where people of all ages have planted, cared for, and are harvesting nourishing food to meet God's needs by feeding the hungry in our very midst," Dempsey says.

Hamlen says that aiding suburban families fallen on hard times continues to drive his band of volunteers, but they also enjoy spreading the word about their gardening ministry.

Their efforts draw congregation members to walk out and see their produce, and it also draws in pedestrians from the community, who walk up and want to know more about their efforts in growing vegetables for the food pantry.

"Community is a big thing in the Christian ethic," Hamlen adds. "I like to think that this community thing is part of our mission at the garden, too."

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