ELKHART — There aren't many people awaiting the arrival of spring quite as eagerly as Katie Jantzen.
Jantzen is counting down the days until she sees hoards of volunteers getting their hands dirty in gardens that grow fruit and vegetables for Church Community Services’ Seed to Feed program. The program provides fresh, local produce and meat to the Food Bank of Elkhart County, which distributes to more than 40 food pantries in the county.
Between produce grown in gardens, meat given to the program and other donations, Seed to Feed distributed almost 150,000 pounds of food in 2013. The program grew more than 36,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables in six gardens last year. Jantzen has a list of nine gardens that will be part of the program in 2014.
“I know it’s making a difference, and I think it’s huge, but it’s not enough because everything that came in last year went right back out,” Jantzen said. “We were barely keeping up with the need, so that’s why it’s important to keep growing the program.”
Volunteers have logged more than 8,000 hours with Seed to Feed since the program began two years ago.
“There’s so many people who want to do good in Elkhart County, and we want to continue to find the best ways to do that,” Jantzen said.
However, not everyone realizes that hunger is a serious problem in Elkhart County, Jantzen said.
“If you don’t have a reason to go to a food pantry or to run into people who are at a soup kitchen, you just don’t know,” she said. “It’s easy to hide. Anywhere you go, cities try to hide it. They don’t want it to look like there’s a huge hunger problem. People who have to come to food pantries don’t want to be here, and they’re not going to publicize it.”
Church Community Services food pantry manager Michael Downing said Seed to Feed provides clients with a wide variety of fresh produce and meat they would not ordinarily have access to.
“It’s wonderful for the families, and we get a lot of rave reviews from our clients,” he said. “They’re very grateful, and they recognize what’s being given to them. A lot of times, our clients are so surprised when you pull out a box of produce or fresh zucchini or kale or something they haven’t been able to afford in a while. Their eyes widen just like a child that’s been given candy."
Kurt Bullard, a volunteer adviser for the program, said Seed to Feed is trying to get to the root of the hunger issue in Elkhart County by hosting workshops to educate the community, including kids, about eating healthy, cooking meals and growing their own food.
“A lot of people who come to us are not sure how to use an acorn squash or how to cook green beans if they don’t come in a can, so we’re trying to educate the guests who come through the pantry,” he said.
For the first time, Church Community Services’ Men Alive program will be part of Seed to Feed. Men Alive, which launched in January, is similar to the organization’s Soup of Success program that teaches women job and life skills. Seed to Feed organizers will teach the Men Alive participants this year about food issues, nutrition, agriculture and home gardening.
“And hopefully, if the snow ever melts, the guys will be able to get out and help us in the Seed to Feed gardens this spring and get hands-on experience with gardening and seeing how it all comes back to the program,” Jantzen said.
In the past year and a half Jantzen has been involved with Seed to Feed, she has learned that “community involvement is key.”
“We’re here to solve the problem, but we can’t do it without community help,” she said. “Seed to Feed is entirely built on community support, whether it's the volunteers in the gardens or farmers donating land or labor or businesses donating seed and fertilizer for the cash crop fields.”
Seed to Feed will host a free barbecue dinner and informational session to recruit volunteers and farmers at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 6, at the Shipshewana Auction Restaurant, 345 S. Van Buren St. Program organizers will also highlight successes over the past year and outline goals for 2014. RSVP with Jantzen by emailing email@example.com or calling (574) 295-3673 ext. 122 by Monday, March 3.
Follow Elkhart Truth reporter Angelle Barbazon on Twitter at @tweetangelle.