Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 24 October 2013 08:37
From its perch on Town Line Road in Menomonee Falls, St. James Catholic Church is a benchmark to motorists driving along lush farmlands, rolling hills and tree-lined roads. What they probably don’t notice as they drive north on Town Line Road are the large garden plots nestled along the north and south portions of the parish property.
For five years, parishioners and Boy Scouts have tended the plots exclusively to donate fresh organic vegetables to clients served by the Cooperating Churches of Sussex’s (CCOS) Food Pantry. Donations have averaged 250 pounds per week each growing season, and volunteers are eager to produce more.
Field of Hope created
Aptly named Field of Dreams in 2008, after the recession increased the need for food, members created the Field of Hope in 2012 to boost donations to the area’s needy. Coordinated by Paul and Denise Schneider, the garden operates in conjunction with the human concerns committee and the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul fund.
|For more information on Field of Dreams and Field of Hope St. James Parish W220 N6570 Town Line Road Menomonee Falls, Wis., 53051
(262) 251-3944 or Paul Schneider
“We saw the need to grow fresh, organic produce for the food pantry because we saw a growing need to help with the regular donations as a lot of the food donated is more inexpensive, starchy stuff,” said Paul. “We wanted to get healthy, fresh, organically grown, nutritious vegetables to go with the packaged food that they get.”
With a list of more than 20 people, volunteers include four master gardeners, who work at various times throughout the week depending on the growing season. Each Saturday morning, volunteers gather at the church, pick vegetables, wash and bag them in the parish kitchen before donating them to the food pantry.
Each garden is 60 x 20 feet wide, and over the past couple of years, volunteers have worked to make the gardening as easy and effective as possible.
“We hooked the gardens up with a drip water system on a timer so we don’t have to rely on volunteers to water any more,” said Paul. “The garden gets watered every day or how often we set the timer. We have pretty much regimented the planting and, throughout the course of the year, weeding and harvesting and taking to the food pantry.”
Herb garden planned
Next year’s improvements are to create a separate garden to provide herbs and spices to add flavor to packaged foods.
“We also are planning on an elevated platform garden for our elderly volunteers so they can garden at waist level,” said Paul, adding, “Then we are looking at putting in a butterfly garden for some people who like to grow flowers instead of vegetables.”
In addition, Pam Dennis, the St. James parish nurse picks produce from the garden to take with her on visits to the sick and elderly.
“She reports that they really appreciate fresh, organically grown produce from our church’s garden,” said Paul. “Everything we grow is donated; nothing comes home with us.”
To fund the garden, Field of Dreams volunteers hold a plant sale at the beginning of each growing season. Monies received pay for seed purchases and equipment in order to achieve their initial objectives: to provide nutritious, organically produced food to the food pantry, to be no financial drain on the parish, and require no paid staff time.
Gardeners plant, cultivate, educate
For parishioner Ed Boss, master gardener and Third Order Franciscan, volunteering with Field of Dreams is a continuation of an apostolate he began while living in Chicago.
“I liked ecology and one of the things I did with the TORs was to help plant a tree in Grant Park,” he said. “I really enjoy meeting people and doing the gardening. We can go out in all weather conditions. As one of the master gardeners, we try to educate people and they educate us, too, and it’s kind of a nice thing to help them and teach them how to train plants to grow up instead of out, how to plant and what the plants should look like.”
Vegetables prepared for donation
One of Boss’s favorite aspects that sets their garden apart from others is the care they take in preparing the vegetables for donation.
“We made the decision to clean all of the vegetables at St. James Church in the kitchen and dry them. Then we put the vegetables in Ziploc bags and that takes a bit of extra time instead of just putting them in a box,” he explained. “From what we understand, it makes a huge difference with clients who come to the food pantry. The food is already prepared as if they were going to the store.”
When Chris Cole retired from teaching in 2007, working with Field of Dreams at her parish seemed a perfect volunteer outlet, as she has enjoyed growing things.
“My strength is the tomatoes and I take care of them, spraying them with non-chemical fungicides, composting and caring for the soil so the roots of the tomatoes grow deeper, so the tomatoes grow stronger; and when you have stronger tomatoes, they are more disease resistant.”
Starting the plants from seeds, Cole nurtures them until they are strong enough to withstand the elements; she also grows tomatoes not generally seen in big box garden stores, as she prefers hardy heirloom quality plants.
“I correspond with people all over the world about growing tomatoes and this year, we introduced the dwarf tomatoes at the St. James garden,” she said. “They are regular sized tomatoes that are grown on 3-4 ft plants. They are great for pots. A gentleman from Australia developed it and shared the seeds; now people from this part of the world have started growing them.”
Garden on God’s property grows well
Cole volunteers in the garden because she believes all people should have access to healthy, organic food.
“I have my faith in God and I think one reason that this garden has been so successful is that it is on God’s property,” she said, adding, “So we already have a head start. This is a fun group and I am so happy to be a part of it.”
In addition to the donation of fresh vegetables, someone drops off food that was collected from the weekend Masses.
“It has been great and wonderful,” said director of the CCOS, Jennifer Waltz. “There are cherry tomatoes and herbs that are labeled in bags. The produce is gorgeous and we appreciate how much time and care they take with everything.”
As the largest donating church in the cooperating churches of Sussex, they are also the largest in monetary donations for the CCOS. Without their help, clients would receive much less assistance.
“It is so nice having St. James help us,” said Waltz. “They are so welcoming and if we have a need, they do the best they can to fill it.”
Food pantry clients welcome fresh produce
The food pantry is open three days a week and clients are allowed to visit twice a month, so the produce is much needed. Waltz said recipes are provided to clients so they learn new ways to prepare the vegetables.
“They are pretty excited to have the fresh produce and love getting the recipes, especially for vegetables that are a bit more unusual,” she said. “Sometimes I will hear a client talking about putting veggies in an omelet, or other recipes they are going to prepare.
We are just like the rest of the world here; we all talk about food and when they see the vegetables laid out, they naturally talk about what to do with them. We are just so blessed to have St. James helping us out; they are wonderfully supportive and kindhearted.”
For Paul Schneider, volunteering in the garden and donating food to the needy is a way for the volunteers to live their faith.
“In Matthew 25, Jesus says to feed the people because they are hungry, so we see that as an extension of our faith by serving our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said. “We take this very seriously.”