Growing season

Community garden helps the food insecure.

Story By Julie Saetre • Photos by Curtis Billue

In Boone County, Indiana, the median household income is a comfortable US$83,077. But as in many other prosperous communities, that number doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Gleaners Food Bank, part of the Feeding America network, in 2019 the county had a 6.1% poverty rate, and 28% of its residents were working but not earning enough money for life’s necessities. 

When Holly Catron, then the county’s community wellness coordinator, learned that the county was home to 6,150 food-insecure people — 1,600 of whom were children — she wanted to do something to help. So she started a movement that evolved into the Boone County Community Gardens, with a mission to “grow a sustainable network of gardens to educate, eat well and create a thriving community.”

At the time, Kiwanian Amy Hammerle worked for the Boone County Economic Development Corporation. She thought the  community gardens would be a great addition to the organizations that were helped on the annual day of service she coordinated for area businesses. When none of the companies chose that option, she knew just who to approach: her fellow members of the Lebanon Kiwanis Club in Lebanon, Indiana.

The Kiwanians not only accepted but decided to include members of the Lebanon High School and Western Boone High School Key Clubs. While the pandemic derailed plans to serve in 2020, volunteers from the three clubs gathered at the production garden on an April Saturday in 2021. The 100-by-100-square-foot space is part of a two-acre plot of land owned by Lebanon Community Church, which offered the land for the project and ran a water line to the plot so plants could be easily maintained. (The remainder of the two-acre space is used by a trio of county residents who grow alfalfa to feed their farm-raised cows and pigs.) 

Throughout the busy day, the Kiwanis family members cleaned out old growth from the previous year, built and installed raised garden beds, created vertical growing cages for vining plants and moved soil and mulch.

“Most of the group were not even aware that there was an organization that grew food for the community, so I think just learning about the production garden was impactful,” says Hammerle. “And then just getting their hands dirty. They could actually see the impact that they were having participating in this project by building garden beds.”

Sue Kovach is one of the master gardeners who regularly works at the all-volunteer program. Since many of the regular gardeners are older, they appreciated the energy and literal heavy lifting brought by the Kiwanis group –— especially the Key Club members.

“That was the day of a lot of wheelbarrows full of very heavy soil,” she recalls. “I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how we would have gotten this done without this group.’”

Aaliyah Carlisle, a member of the Lebanon High School Key Club, was one of those heavy lifters. 

“I helped with the hard part, filling the beds,” she says. “I hauled soil and compost for hours onto a wheelbarrow and into the garden beds, then flattened the soil inside of the beds. It was exhausting, but I had a lot of fun doing it and would definitely do it again. After hours of shoveling, going back and forth and pushing a wheelbarrow, it was really nice to see the product of all of our labor.” 

In fact, Carlisle enjoyed the experience so much that she volunteered on her own to help out at the production garden in the months to come.

“I really liked how easy it was to talk to anyone there,” she explains. “Everyone cared about the project, but there was a really nice balance between talking about it and everyone’s personal life. I made some friends, and it was nice hearing not only about their experiences with gardening, but about their kids, their jobs — it was really nice to connect.”

Throughout the growing season, a variety of vegetables thrived: lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, peas, cucumbers, green beans, radishes, carrots, beets, cabbage, jalapenos, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, spaghetti squash, watermelon and butternut squash. During the most bountiful harvest months, volunteers picked vegetables two or three times weekly, sometimes bringing in as much as 150 pounds per day. And by season’s end, they had grown and donated 2,400 pounds — more than a ton — of healthy food to feed hungry county residents.

The Kiwanis family members returned to the garden in the fall for cleanup, and again in April of 2022 to start the whole process over for a new growing cycle. 

Their help, Kovach says, is invaluable to the continuation of the program.

“We want this forever to be a garden space,” she says. “We really want this to be a donation garden where everything we grow we give away. So with the help of Kiwanis and other groups, this could go on for a really long time. I will always be appreciative of Kiwanis and the Key Clubs. I just love that group. They’ve been lifesavers for us.”

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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