If you stopped by the Demonstration Garden this spring, you may have met Myra Rosenthal, a long time Gateway Greening volunteer and Garden Leader of the Garden of Eden at the JCC. Recently, we caught up with Myra to learn more about the Garden of Eden’s unique mission: providing her local food pantry with fresh garden produce.
“You know, it wasn’t difficult [to start a garden] and it evolved organically (pardon the pun). Many people have gardens in their homes and bring excess produce to the pantry. For years my husband has always taken his extra tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers there. Jewish congregations in the St. Louis area have donation bins solely for the purpose of collecting food for the pantry.” – Myra Rosenthal, Garden Leader at the Garden of Eden
Founded in 2011 with the goal of providing fresh produce to the local Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, the Garden of Eden has grown considerably from its humble beginnings.
Open four days a week, the Garden of Eden is located on a corner of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center property and currently has more than 4,000 square feet of growing space in the form of raised planting berms and beds. A portion of the garden is reserved for the use of nearby Covenant Place residents, many of whom are immigrants or refugees.
With the combined effort of long-time gardeners, individual and group volunteers, and even a few cheery day camp participants, the Garden of Eden was able to grow and donate more than 3,700 pounds of food to the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry in 2016 alone.
Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry
Started in 1991, the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, originally operated out of a single room on a shoestring budget, serving no more than 40 families. Since then the food pantry has grown considerably. Today it is a designated USDA food pantry affiliated with the St. Louis Area Foodbank and Operation Food Search, and serves more than 6,500 people each month, making it one of the largest food pantries in the region.
During a recent visit to the food pantry to learn more about how community gardeners can support their local pantries, Gateway Greening staff Erin Wood and Mallory Brown were deeply impressed by the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry’s commitment to alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds. The staff and volunteers of the pantry make every effort to accommodate special dietary needs, providing kosher, halal, gluten-free, and diabetic friendly options for their guests as much as possible.
When asked how the Garden of Eden decides what to grow in the garden each year, Myra’s response was candid: “Well, we got smart. Eventually. When we first started, that is, in our first year, we went to a local gardening store and we thought, ‘Oh, this plant looks good. We’ll buy it.’ ‘Oh, look, this is interesting. Let’s get it.’ ‘Oh, this herb is soooo cute. We’ll grow this.’ Then somewhere in the middle of the summer, I remember thinking, ‘Is that what the clients of the food pantry want?’ So the next time I went to the pantry I asked. I was stunned when I was told the clients in the pantry had no use for herbs. They wanted simple, sustainable food. They didn’t want anything fancy. That’s when I learned we don’t grow what WE want. We grow what THEY, the clients of the food pantry, want.”
Visiting the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry is much like visiting a corner grocery store, as the pantry has moved to a “Client Choice” model. Using this model, guests are encouraged to explore the items and select foods which their families will use at home, up to a certain amount based on the number of people in their household. Judy Berkowitz, Director of the food pantry, explains that this model is more flexible than the traditional ‘bagged’ method, allowing individuals to meet their dietary needs while still embracing differences in food culture among their diverse guest base.
Myra shared that it is sometimes challenging to grow for such a diverse community, but most of the time – it isn’t. Despite not being familiar with crops like okra and collard greens, Myra chose to grow them because they went over well with the clients. “We are a multicultural country anyway and we should try other’s foods. Come to think of it, the clients at the food pantry are multinational. Some are from Asia, Russia, the Ukraine, and the Middle East. What’s odd or unusual to us may not be to them and they gladly take.”
Community Garden Challenges
When asked about challenges faced by gardening, Myra states: “Gardens are gardens. I’ve never met a productive vegetable garden that looks like a set for a magazine or a tv show. Even the vegetable garden in Orange Is the New Black looks a zillion times better than ours. And there’s a dead body buried in it! I have had to deal with dismissive comments of people who think we should look weed free, lush and beautiful. I think we spend an inordinate amount of time on weeding and other tasks so that the garden looks at least decent to ordinary passersby. But, then, to be fair, we chose not to have a fence. That was deliberate. In the Bible, farmers are commanded to leave part of their fields for the poor to glean. We do the same.”
Beyond the weeds, the Garden of Eden faces other challenges that many St. Louis community gardens can relate to: the struggle to find continuous funding, engaged volunteers and new garden members, as well as materials being stolen or vandalized. And perhaps the most devastating of all – the occasional crop failure.
Guide to Growing for Food Pantries
Interested in sharing the bounty from your personal or community garden with a local food pantry? Myra shares a few insights:
- Food pantries are as varied and unique as the communities they serve. Some will have refrigerators and freezers available for storing excess food, and some will not. Although most will take fresh foods that will last for at least a few days, some pantries will only accept boxed and canned goods.
- Open Hours: Learn when the food pantry is open, and call ahead to see when they accept donations. Many rely on volunteers and may only have the capacity to accept and process your gift on certain days.
- Visit your food pantry! Knowing how a pantry operates, and what its specific needs are, will empower you to make informed decisions about what will and will not be helpful to the food pantry.
- Always respect the privacy of the guests of the food pantry. Ask the food pantry staff if there are any guidelines you should be following when making a donation.
- People who are food insufficient are reluctant to try new items, and many do not have measuring cups, baking equipment, or easy access to the internet to search for recipes. When possible, keep your food donations simple and basic. When growing for a pantry, always ask what foods will be most helpful.
- Always clean the food before making a donation! Food pantries have a lot of work to accomplish and often have limited manpower to do it all. Food safety is paramount when providing food for others, and providing clean food ensures it ends up on the shelves quicker.
- Call ahead and let the food pantry know that you are harvesting for them or plan to make a donation on a certain day. This simple courtesy is anything but, as it allows the pantry to make changes as needed to meet the needs of its guests.