Sunday, June 6, 2010

Plant A Row for the Hungry, Oxford County, ME

How does one person provide upwards of 300 hungry people with healthy, fresh produce?  Through Plant A Row for the Hungry and lots of volunteers!

On June 3 and 4, we visited South Paris, ME, where Barbara Murphy, Maine Extension Service Educator, runs a particularly effective and inspiring Plant A Row program for Oxford County.  Barbara's goal this year is to provide 12,000 lbs of fresh produce to those who need it in Oxford County.  Since she also teaches the master gardener classes, and each student provides 40 hours of community gardening in conjunction with the course, she has a ready supply of volunteers (they jokingly call themselves her “indentured servants!”).  Many of these volunteers are inspired by her example, and continue to provide service well beyond what’s required from the course.  We helped in 3 very different gardens.

The first garden we worked in with Barbara (shown on the right with one of her master gardeners) was located right behind a Tri-Country Mental Health Facility.  Clients in the day program, with the help of Barbara and several master gardeners, plant beans, squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe, beets, carrots, and other produce.  As the produce grows and ripens, the clients will harvest it for themselves and the center.  All of the clients are on SNAP (the government food assistance program), and more than 50% are also diabetic (caused, in part, by the medications they need to take), so these foods help them increase the nutritional value of their usual diets.  The staff include healthy eating information in their program, along with recipes using the ripe produce.  This was the 4th year for this garden, and the clients now have learned the routine, pitch in and help each other, ask for direction from Barbara and the other gardeners, and really enjoy the activity.  While we were there, we weeded, helped one client plant bean seeds, several others wet newspapers to lay as a weed barrier, and others spread mulch. 

That evening, we helped a large group of master gardeners with activities in Barbara's large gardens on the grounds of the county extension service.  One of the new master gardeners commented that actually working in the gardens helped her to cement the knowledge she’d learned in the classroom portion, and she was really enjoying the hands-on learning.  The first activity was to harvest, wash, and weigh beautiful, large onions that had been planted last fall, and spinach that had been grown this spring.  These harvested goodies will supply 87 seniors that obtain supplemental food at the county extension office each week an added treat of good, fresh produce.  Then we planted various squash seedlings and other crops from seeds.  There must have been 20+ gardeners there at various times during the late afternoon and evening, helping with the harvesting and planting.  As the season progresses and more vegetables are ready to harvest, Barbara will call her list of those in need and tell them they can come pick up produce on Thursday evenings.  Last year, up to 70 people came to pick up fresh produce, representing up to 210 people in need of additional food.  Often, the master gardeners also provide some dishes prepared with the available produce.  Others in the area with extra produce also bring it to Barbara, and she gives it away on Thursday evenings along with the produce from the on-site gardens, or finds another home for it if it’s too much or not appropriate for the Thursday night give-aways.

The next day, we helped with gardening at the Maine Veterans’ Home in South Paris.  One of the residents there wanted a garden, so master gardeners planted a moderate-sized vegetable garden and several blueberry bushes under the watchful eye of this resident.  We helped weed and mulch.  The produce from the garden is weighed and supplied to the Veterans’ Home kitchen to incorporate into their meals, and the staff appreciate taking what can’t be used by the kitchen.

If you want to Plant A Row for the Hungry, Barbara gives the following advice:  Plant larger amounts of fewer, commonly used vegetables and/or fruits.  For Maine, Barbara recommends cantaloupe (fresh fruit is too expensive for many to afford), carrots (they store well), green beans (give a great yield), onions (they’re expensive to buy), broccoli and cabbage (store well and are versatile), cucumbers, chard, beet greens and beets, tomatoes.  Tailor what you grow to what people in your area like to use.  Avoid “strange” crops (yellow tomatoes, for example).

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