CHICAGO — For years, some parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese have maintained gardens whose produce was donated to local food pantries.
With the rise in food insecurity during COVID-19 sending more people to food pantries than before, those ministries have taken on a new importance.
Volunteers at the Jubilee Garden of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lake Zurich, a Chicago suburb, debated whether they would be able to have the garden at all this year because of the pandemic. But when businesses started opening up, they made plans to start the garden with social-distancing measures in place, said coordinator Sharon Fredrickson.
No more than 10 people are allowed in the garden at a time, and all are encouraged to wear masks.
“All of us wear gloves because it’s dirty work,” Fredrickson said. “Being in a garden by nature you’re typically far apart anyway. And by its very nature, you’re outside.”
The Jubilee Garden began over 20 years ago and uses a plot of landed donated by a parishioner. Heavy rains in early May meant volunteers weren’t able to start planting in the garden until the end of the month.
Volunteers work in the gardens on Saturday mornings and produce is donated to the local St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.
“What makes it even harder this year with COVID-19 is you have a lot of people who might not have been on the other end of needing a food pantry, but they are now because of so many layoffs,” Fredrickson told the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
They plant a variety of crops such as tomatoes, string beans, zucchini and cucumbers. One parishioner plants pumpkins that are donated to the pantry for the kids around Halloween.
“We do a lot of tomatoes. We also have a larger Hispanic population, so we do tomatillos,” she said. “We’re going to try potatoes this year.”
It’s a group effort.
“Everybody has different interests. Some people like to sit and weed. Some people like to harvest. Some people love to mow the lawn,” Frederickson said. “It’s amazing what we get done.”
They are able to harvest several hundred pounds of fresh, organic produce each year.
In the Centennial Garden at St. Paul of the Cross Church in suburban Park Ridge, social-distancing measures also are the priority this year, according to Adrienne Timm, director of social service ministry at the parish. The garden is in its ninth year and produce is given to the parish food pantry, which is open once a month.
They are using SignUpGenius to schedule times when people can be in the garden. Only one family, or no more than three individuals, can be in the garden at one time. Gloves are mandatory and they are asking people to be aware of common surfaces, like the latch on the garden gate.
When the parish put out the call for volunteers again this year, everyone said yes.
“They said, ‘This gives us a sense of normalcy. It gives us a way to give to others things that are fresh that they cannot always get from pantries,'” Timm said. “Everyone is on board.”
She said the garden, which allows parishioners sections to plant, care for and harvest, is an effective way to build community within the parish and families. They have 40 growing areas that include buckets, vines, raised bed gardens, an herb garden and a butterfly garden.
“There’s a lot of good stuff that comes out of it,” she said. “Our food pantry clients really love the fresh food. It’s about hopefully building some sort of relationship beyond ‘Here you go,’ because it’s a win-win on both ends.”
Any extra produce is donated to the Catholic Charities food pantry in Des Plaines, Illinois.
“It’s a very tangible way to feed the hungry and people like to see the fruit of their labors,” Timm said. “It is about relationship and it’s about hope. It’s not just how great we are that we’re doing this. We’re working together to make the kingdom come here on earth.”
Father Ken Fleck, pastor of St. George Parish in Tinley Park, another Chicago suburb, has been gardening since he was in fourth grade and has turned several areas of his parish into gardens with the yields being donated to the Tinley Park Food Bank.
When school is in session, he uses the gardens to teach the school students about the science behind growing produce. Students will seed the plants. He has apple trees on the property that he uses as a teaching tool for the school students. They harvest and process the apples then make apple muffins for the food pantry.
“They’re learning religion and corporal works of mercy and a little chemistry, too,” Fleck said.
When church is open normally, during the summer months, the parish has baskets in the vestibule where parishioners can drop off fruit and vegetables from their home gardens for donation to the food pantry.
Last year, between the parish gardens, which encompass about 2,800 square feet on the parish grounds, and parishioners donating items from their own gardens, the parish gave 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Tinley Park Food Pantry.
“It’s living our faith,” Fleck said. “What helps to keep us spiritually and emotionally healthy is to think outside of the box that is ourselves. When you focus your attention on the needs of others, all of a sudden life has a purpose, it has meaning.”
The parish also grows hundreds of tomato and pepper plants in two greenhouses and buys about 1,000 more tiny seedlings each spring and gives them to the school students to nurture. This year, after schools were closed for the pandemic, Father Fleck took over the nurturing.
When they are ready to be planted outdoors, the parish will make them available to parishioners. They can make a donation to summer youth ministry programs in exchange for plants, or they can take some for free.
But if they don’t make a donation, Fleck said, they are asked to raise more than one plant, keeping the produce from half of what they take for their own families and donating the produce from the other half to the food pantry.
He encourages parents to plant gardens with their children and donate some of the produce to a local food pantry.
“When parents and children work together it reminds parents of the baptismal promises that they are the first teachers of the children,” the priest said. “Parents teach their children more so by their example than by sending them to religious education classes.”
Duriga is editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.