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Nourishing the Valley: Community gardens bring a harvest to fight local hunger | Photo gallery
The warm dirt feels good in the hands of Beth Luna.
She and fellow Mount Si Lutheran Church member Jane Benson were dipping tiny seeds into a row of planters in the church’s community garden. It’s a hot day, but their task is more recreation than work. They’re surrounded by growing things.
“It’s amazing that you can put a seed in the ground, and this happens,” says Luna.
These seeds will become the next crop of veggies this fall, but the bounty isn’t just for the two women.
The community garden’s main purpose is providing fresh produce for the needy. And it’s hardly unique.
Mount Si Lutheran’s garden is one of several plots in the Valley, run by organizations or individuals, that grow produce for local food banks and pantries.
While community gardens do not meet Mount Si Food Bank’s entire produce needs, volunteer contributions make up an increasing part of the selection there.
That’s got Food Bank Manager Heidi Dukich excited. Volunteer gardens, she says, “show our neighbors that we care to give them the most nutritious foods.”
Mount Si Food Bank helps about 400 families every week, a record number. That population includes an increasing amount of seniors.
Dukich says fresh produce is ideal for seniors, people with diabetes or those on restrictive diets. Seniors in particular really appreciate all the greens and veggies, Dukich says.
The food bank is making a fresh effort to educate and encourage its clients to eat healthy.
During the summer, educator Matthew Denton visits the Mount Si Food Bank weekly, helping families make smart, healthy food choices.
Denton is a Food $ense educator with Washington State University. He comes for an hour and half every Wednesday, helping teach children about healthy snacks, and parents about balanced meals.
Denton’s visits coincide with the food bank’s Summer Cupboard program, which fills the nutrition gap left when schools close for summer. During the break, families receive additional breakfast and lunch items each week in addition to their regular groceries.
Community garden efforts help families put their new knowledge to work.
Dukich encourages local gardeners to plant a row for charity, or, if they have extra produce, consider donating it to the food bank.
Food bank volunteers can wash and prepare the produce onsite. Any amount is welcome.
“This is something the whole family can do,” said Dukich, who grows her own patch at the Mount Si Lutheran plot, with tomatoes, cucumber, cilantro and beans. “Anyone who has a plot can contribute.”
“It’s just adding to the garden basket,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be a whole bushel—it can be a few items.”
Some folks harvest, some folks water, but Betty Keaton prefers the job that most gardeners hate.
“Weeding is my favorite thing in the world,” she says. She can’t always tell a ripe vegetable from a green one. But with weeds, there’s certainty.
“There’s no question—you just take them all out. It instantly looks better.”
Keaton banishes weeds at Snoqualmie Valley Alliance Church community gardens, organizing and galvanizing the volunteer effort in the process. SVA volunteers garden at two plots, one provided by Bybee-Nims Blueberry Farm at North Bend, the other by Chet Thor at Tokul.
Property owners plow and till, then Snoqualmie Valley Alliance provides manpower for planting, weeding and harvesting.
This is SVA’s second year of community gardening. Keaton also set out a basket last Sunday for church gardeners to drop off their extra produce for the food bank.
SVA is now providing five boxes of veggies a week from its Tokul garden, and two from the Bybee garden.
Volunteers garden at least one night a week. Keaton wants to offer scheduled gardening times to help new volunteers take part. She welcomes new helpers, and wider participation in the gardening effort from her Valley neighbors.
Most gardeners, she said, end up with more than they need.
“If your neighbors and friends aren’t around, you just don’t have enough people to give it away to,” Keaton said. The food bank can benefit, and the quality of homegrown produce can’t be beat, she says.
North Bend resident Jane Benson had a green thumb for flowers, but veggies were beyond her until she got involved with the community garden. Now, on a warm summer afternoon, she cuts fresh broccoli for the food bank, taking a bite for a taste.
Last year, following shoulder surgery, weeding became Benson’s therapy. Tending the garden is enjoyable, and she’s eating better, too. Benson feels like she’s giving something back.
These growers aren’t thanked directly by the people they help, but they hear back from food bank staff about what’s needed, and what flies off the shelves.
Three years ago, Mount Si Lutheran’s 40-by-40-foot plot was bare grass. But congregation members decided to nurture their own roots in town.
Some beds raise food specifically for the food bank, while some are individual or family plots. But all plots give something to the food bank.
“We planted this. We dug it down into the ground,” Luna said.
“We’ve learned a lot about gardening in the last three years,” adds Mount Si Pastor Mark Griffith, who raises chickens at the parsonage next door.
“The first year, we wanted to be organic,” Luna said. “Not being gardeners ourselves, we got plain dirt. The first year was pretty bleak.
“The next year, we amended the soil, and things took off,” she added.
Pastor Mark rigged up a rain-fed irrigation system that supplements nature’s bounty. They’ve only had to turn the city tap on during the hottest, dryest weeks.
There are no set work nights. Members will drop by, spontaneously, and before you know it, a half-dozen friends are working in the garden on late summer afternoons.
Luna said the garden is a way for her neighbors to do something they love, with a purpose. When people walk by and ask questions, she gets a sense of satisfaction.
“We’re growing more than just vegetables,” Griffith said. “We’re really growing a community, reconnecting ourselves to the earth and our stewardship of it, the care of creation.”
Mount Si Lutheran’s 20 volunteers will continue harvesting through September.
How to help
You can learn more about Mount Si Food Bank and its produce donation program at mtsifoodbank.org.
Produce donation drop-off times are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, and 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays. The Mount Si Food Bank is located at 122 E. Third St., North Bend.
Above, Jane Benson picks broccoli at her plot at the Mount Si Lutheran Church Community garden.
Below, Benson and Beth Luna prepare plant seeds for fall produce. The seedlings will first grow in the adjacent greenhouse.
Bottom, the garden as it appeared earlier when plants were young. Every plot gives something to the local food bank, and some parcels are dedicated to the charity.