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New initiative aims to help community care for its own

Local farmers are helping launch new food sustainability program at Church Community Services

Posted on June 3, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

GOSHEN — Saturday morning under a cloudless blue sky and welcoming sun, a small group of volunteers labored in a farm field, pounding thin wooden stakes into damp soil and planting leafy tomato seedlings alongside.

A few rows away, a knot of people were piercing small holes in the ground and dropping in green bean seeds.

In the middle of the activity was Dave Hochstetler of Elkhart. Until August 2011, he had been a carpet salesman and until April 2012, he had never volunteered for the faith-based charity Church Community Services. But his desire to do something more meaningful in his retirement, besides playing golf and taking naps in the afternoon, was answered when he was asked to join a new effort at the nonprofit.

Seed to Feed is a grassroots initiative organized by local farmers to grow the food that will help feed the hungry in Elkhart County. Church Community Services is serving as the lead agency. This summer, the group is planting 70 acres with corn and soybeans which, at the end of the season, will be sold and the money used to purchase fresh vegetables.

The produce will then be made available not only to clients of CCS but also to nearly 30 other food pantries and hot meal sites throughout the county.

But before the harvest, before the vegetables appear in the pantries, a small group of volunteers was planting tomatoes, green beans, green peppers, squash and onions on a one-acre plot along C.R. 36. Seed to Feed had set aside that portion for a garden that will also provide fresh food to local agencies.

“It’s not just feeding the hungry. It’s more of a connection when people can get involved,” said Jeremy Shue, minister of outreach at Silverwood Mennonite Church. He was among the volunteers giving up part of his weekend to work in the field.

It’s one thing to donate a can of green beans,” he continued. “It’s another thing to get the bigger vision and grow a crop to donate.”

TAKING ROOT

Seed to Feed started in January when a handful of farmers approached CCS with the idea of Elkhart County taking care of its own.

Projects to supply local food to CCS and other pantries have been discussed, even started, in the past but they fizzled after one season, said Rod Roberson, executive director of CCS. This time was different because Seed to Feed is looking beyond this year’s harvest and figuring out what will need to be done operationally to continue and grow the program.

“What’s been refreshing, and we consider a blessing, is this group came together and from the go they were talking about sustainability, they were talking model and they were talking compassion,” Roberson said.

Meetings that took place at Church Community Services’ building on Oakland Avenue in Elkhart became more crowded as more people attended each time. Hands were raised, suggestions were made and relationships were called up as to where to turn for extra help or specific items.

In the end, 70 acres of land, seeds, fertilizer, use of farming equipment, fuel, irrigation, harvesting and labor had been donated to Seed to Feed.

“We would sit around this table and the energy was just palpable,” Carol Willis, development director at CCS, said, remembering those sessions.

Recently another farmer called CCS, saying he had planted three acres of potatoes that he would be sending to the pantry in the fall. Also on Friday, a local grower contacted Hochstetler and donated 50 to 70 tomato seedlings for the garden.

Hochstetler is not surprised by the generosity. A lot of people want to help, he said, but they need a way to give and to volunteer.

He intends to provide those opportunities by expanding Seed to Feed. His agenda for next year is focused on getting more volunteers for the vegetable garden and increasing the amount of donated farm land from 70 acres to 700 acres.

TO THE KITCHEN TABLE

Having a supply of healthy food is huge, said Mary Kneller, director of food services at CCS. The food service center will have a stable source of fresh vegetables that will supplement the donated groceries, an especially important aspect since federal budget cuts greatly curtailed the commodities coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We always rely on the Lord to replenish, but wow, he’s giving me gray hair waiting until the last day,” Kneller said.

In addition, the home-grown produce will provide a balance to the canned and processed foods that typically fill the pantry’s shelves, she said. This could better the health of CCS clients by reducing the amount of sodium and sugar in their diets.

“If you’ve got good produce out there in the pantry it flies off the shelf,” Kneller said. “A majority (of CCS food clients) want to feed their kids healthy food. If we have it, that’s what they take.”

Church Community Services is the lead agency in the Seed to Feed program because, Roberson said, it has the capacity to move the food through its facility to other community nonprofits. Once the produce starts arriving, CCS will distribute as well as blanch and process the extra so it can be stored for use during the winter months.

Two businesses have already stepped forward and offered storage space when harvesting begins.

Roberson views Seed to Feed as fitting perfectly with the mission of CCS, which works to not only help those in need but also to empower them.

The new program will empower the clients by providing them more food, better food and more choices. Once the new food pantry building is completely finished, CCS will offer samples and cooking classes so people can learn how to prepare a variety of fresh vegetables.

“If you don’t think about the larger need,” Roberson said, “you’ll only serve a small part of it.”

A HIGHER POWER

Missing from the outpouring of generosity are the names. Many of the farmers and those connected with Seed to Feed want to remain anonymous, despite Roberson’s pleas that he be allowed to publicly acknowledge them.

“They want to stay behind the scenes,” he said. “They want it to be God’s work.”

Saturday morning, Jeremy Shue, the minister at Silverwood Mennonite Church, saw the presence of God.

The volunteers were planting their vegetable patch in soil that was pliable and had just the right amount of moisture. Elkhart County, like much of Indiana, has seen little rain but for two days before Seed to Feed was scheduled to put its garden in the ground, the clouds drizzled.

If too little rain had fallen, the ground would have been too hard to plant. And if too much rain had fallen, the ground would have been too wet. But, Shue pointed out, just enough rain fell, just the exact right amount.

“We couldn’t have planned it any better than that,” he said.


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