Fresh ideas feed the hungry

Rabbi Brad Horwitz leads a dedication for the Garden of Eden on the grounds of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Despite the worst drought in decades, those gardeners who water their plants are apt to be rewarded with a bountiful harvest.

And, as the gardeners who are tending the Garden of Eden plots north of the Jewish Community Center buildings in Creve Coeur have discovered, working the soil and growing fresh vegetables can create new friendships and bridge seemingly large cultural barriers.

As many who work the backyard soil know all too well, when the zucchini, tomatoes and sweet peppers start coming in, suddenly there are more of them than one family can eat. As long as they get enough water, tomatoes seem to be particularly fine this year, with the seemingly endless days of fierce sun.

That simple fact gave Laura Silver of Olivette an idea: Why not give her extra tomatoes, cucumbers, vegetables and herbs, to the Jewish Food Pantry? That way, clients who need fresh vegetables in their diets can receive them.

“It was a no-brainer type of idea,” said Silver, 41, who helped create the Share the Harvest program at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry in 2010 and is a trustee of the Jewish Light. Her interest in gardening in her immaculate backyard sprang from her love of cooking.  “I was giving tomatoes and basil to everyone I know.”

This summer, Silver has nine types of tomatoes, including heirlooms, staked and ready to begin ripening in a week or so, if not sooner. She also has planters brimming with Cuban basil and sweet purple basil, as well as field greens, jalapenos, cucumbers and a host of herbs: rosemary, thyme, flat leaf parsley, sage and oregano.

The mild winter meant some herbs, like the sage, didn’t die back. As she has in summers past, Silver plans to can and freeze what she needs for her family, then take the rest of her harvest to the food pantry at 10950 Schuetz Road.

The pantry’s plans to move to a renovated building close by have been delayed; the official opening now is to be Oct. 21, said Don Meissner, community outreach coordinator. The pantry, one of several in the St. Louis area, feeds about 5,000 people a month.

“The seder says somewhere to leave the corners for the hungry,” Silver said. “I have the corners.”

She also has the right idea for avoiding the waste that can come from too much of a good thing when even a small garden starts bursting forth with its bounty.

Providing fresh produce from local gardeners is one way the food pantry can supplement the dried, canned and frozen food it hands out to qualified recipients. It already has a continuing relationship with the wholesale marketers on St. Louis’ Produce Row, which supplies many stores and restaurants with perishable fruit and vegetables.

Meissner said food pantry officials do not keep track of how much produce it gets from gardeners or Produce Row.

“We can’t estimate it,” he said. “It comes in in fits and starts. Suddenly, we will have a whole bin of watermelons. One time, we had 25 boxes of yellow squash.”

Donor gardeners can contact the food pantry (314-993-1000) about making a donation of garden surplus during normal business hours or simply drive to the building and take in their donation of vegetables and fruit.

Meissner suggested that gardeners bring what they want to donate early in the week so clients will have more to choose from. If a donation comes in on Friday, the produce might have to sit in a cooler through the weekend, which would hurt its freshness.

“By the end of the week, if we’ve used every bit of the perishables we have on hand, we’re glad,” he said, adding that each time a family receives the normal quota of canned and dried food, it will be given a quantity of produce, depending on what’s available.

At the Garden of Eden garden plots, residents of the nearby Covenant House/CHAI complex have struck up new friendships, even though some speak little English because their native tongue is Chinese.

Myra Rosenthal, who lives in nearby unincorporated St. Louis County and heads the committee that set up the garden, said the ground was so hard and dry this spring that they could not use a tiller to break up the soil. So they bought raised vegetable beds, added a soil mix and began growing vegetables.

“There were more people in Covenant/CHAI than I thought who were interested in gardening,” said Rosenthal, a retired school psychologist and adjunct instructor at Washington University.

The original idea, she said, was to have the raised beds grow vegetables for the food pantry. But then some of the Chinese residents of Covenant/CHAI became interested because they had a place to grown their own preferred produce.

“They are better gardeners than we are,” she said. “They have the experience with collective farming created by [Chinese Communist leader] Mao Zedong.”

The vegetables grown by the Chinese residents, who include a surgeon whose wife is a cardiologist, are the kind found in some of the local Asian markets: Chinese cucumbers and long beans.

“I am not sure what some of the things are,” Rosenthal said.

A visit to the garden this past weekend revealed a wide variety of plants, such as tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant, beans, water melons, radishes, carrots and herbs. Cinder blocks turned on their side were filled with dirt and sprouting what appeared to be chives. Each of the beds are intensively cultivated.

“There is such a sense of purpose,” Rosenthal said. “And we’ve formed incredible friendships. We are going over [this week] to learn how to make Chinese noodles… They are extraordinarily industrious, problem-solving people.”

At the dedication of the Garden of Eden on July 15, Rosenthal said a translator explained the purpose of the communal effort.

“I think the Chinese understood what we were doing for the first time,” she said. “It was the first time they put it all together, to give a little to the poor people.”