Community gardening nourishing more than bodies

May 20, 2016

As I reflect on the last few days of work on the farm, our Farm for ME project of Catholic Charities Food Bank program, I am pondering some of the events that occurred.

We have been working for weeks with sparse help and mother nature biting our heals with high humidity, hot temperatures and a generous helping of down pours, trying to get our four acres of rutabagas and beets thinned out in a timely manner to ensure they have proper spacing to grow. It has been a battle against time and weeds that sometimes I thought sure was going to take me and the crop down.

We never gave up and with the help of some of our crew, some of our regular volunteers, some new friends such as some local homeschoolers, some local high school students, some random folks and small groups of people and my own family members, we are winning!! We are down to our last few rows to thin and once we moved from rutabaga thinning to beet thinning we were able to transition into harvesting since the beet greens and the baby beets are some of the finest eating one can find in the early days of harvest. It also makes it a bit easier to get folks to buy into the effort when it involves harvesting opposed to weeding and or thinning and tossing the baby plants away such was the case with the 3 plus acres of rutabagas we did previously.

We discovered that the best way to get the beet greens and beets to stay fresh for a few days as we found homes for them throughout the County and the State was to dampen them and pack them in bags and store them in coolers. With a little good ole County Ingenuity our maintenance man, Shane, designed a near perfect racking system for us from an upside down twin bed with some added chicken wire. This invention allowed us to sort the greens, spray them with water and pack them in convenient family size potato bags for distribution. Did I mention that the potato bags (four pallets of them) were donated last spring by a local bag company?? And that the men were like “what are we going to do with those”??? I said “save them for our farm.” I was not sure at the time how we would use them but they along with my 80 year old Momma sticking our Farm for ME labels on each bag have been absolutely perfect for our damp beet greens to be packed in for fresh keeping.

We have shipped over 3,000 lbs (four pallets) of fresh packed beet greens to Good Shepherd Food Bank, we have distributed more to our local pantries, Aroostook Area Agency on Aging and any and all organizations locally who may want some of them for soup kitchens, shut ins and senior centers as well as those expressing a need or desire to have some. They are time sensitive and it is important to get them out quickly.

Yesterday a little lady and her husband approached our beet racking and packing area outside the food warehouse. She was a volunteer we had a few years ago and I have not seen much of her for awhile. She had some health issues that prevented her from helping us at our store in Caribou and her husband has been suffering from a terrible accident where he was gassed by some poisonous gas that left him unable to stay alone and changed him from an active, social, farmworker and husband to a man who cannot do much at all or show any emotions.

Gloria – that’s the woman’s name – came to me a couple weeks ago with a need for a hug and to tell me she had done something terrible and proceeded to tell me how she had discovered she had a mental illness, and that she had messed up her husband’s insurance for his medications and now he cannot get his medications due to no insurance. She indicated that she had messed up the checking account and had not paid the premium and now he was without his insurance and there was no way to fix it. I assured her “there is always away to fix it”. With some words of encouragement and another hug we talked about her coming back to help us, to be around people, to do what she could. I showed her some things she could do in our store and she could bring her husband Leigh with her, opposed to trying to find someone to stay with him. I told her of my Mom who is 80 and has had a stroke and cannot do the things she used to do but she comes in and sits down and sticks labels on our Farm for ME bags, she folds bags for the stores and packs grab bags. Gloria was delighted and could not wait to start.

So, when Gloria and Leigh approached me yesterday at the beet rack processing station I recruited them right there and right now to help us cut the ends off some of the larger beets and pack them in bags. Gloria cut the beets and her husband packed them in bags. I truly think I saw a smile on Leigh’s face; the man with no emotions. Gloria is missing a hand so with one hand she prepared the beets like a pro and all the while with her dear and beloved husband next to her packing the beets. I received a note from Gloria last night telling me of the joy it was for her to help and see her husband be part of something again. They are both coming back to help us again tomorrow and my guess is for as long as we can find a chore for them to do they will come and we will get the much needed help we need to do the work we do and they will get a chance to be part of something important and necessary. I can see what that means to them and I know what it means to me.

After the beets were picked, and rinsed and chopped and racked and packed and the mess cleaned up and we all headed to our respective homes, I remembered as I was half way through town that a little lady from a senior living center in Presque Isle had asked if she could get some beet greens for herself and some of the other seniors at her complex. I turned around and came back and got two cases of the bagged up beet greens from the cooler and delivered them to her building. She came out to see what I had and immediately started knocking on doors to tell the residents what was in the hall. The greens were going like hot cakes when I noticed one woman in particular who reached out her arms as she was passed a bag of the greens, with the crisp and vibrant leaves peeking out, she received it like she was Miss America receiving a beautiful bouquet of flowers, she put her nose in it to smell it, she caressed the beautiful leaves with a huge smile on her face. I said “they are not clean, they have been rinsed but they have dirt on them and must be cleaned” and she said “I am a farm girl, I love the smell of the fresh dirt and I am going to put these in my sink right away and prepare them right now.”

So as I think of these events I think: Who ARE our clients? Who ARE we helping?? Our program mission is to feed the hungry. I think we are feeding more than bellies.

Have I said how much I LOVE MY JOB?? Some days I just have to ponder. I am glad I did today.

Dixie Shaw
Hunger & Relief Services
Catholic Charities Maine

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