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Community gardens benefit Southland food pantries

Carol Malcom (left) Becky Olbrich pick tomatoes from community garden plot near Lincoln-Way East where they raise vegetables for Frankfort

Carol Malcom (left) and Becky Olbrich pick tomatoes from the community garden plot near Lincoln-Way East where they raise vegetables for the Frankfort food pantry in Frankfort, Illinois, Tuesday, August 21, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:01AM



It’s a midweek summer evening, and the field behind Dale Bormet’s Manhattan home is filled with people.

The sky is sunny, the temperature mild, the mood uplifting.

But these folks are toiling, getting their hands muddy, their backs bending as they work the field.

Twice a week, people gather at the one-acre Manhattan Friendship Garden on Sweedler Road, armed with clippers as they fill buckets and baskets with ripe tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, cabbage and more — thousands of pounds more.

There’s a beauty to the bounty, too: The garden was developed solely to produce fresh vegetables for local food pantries. And it’s not the only one.

On a smaller scale, but no less significant, is the work of Becky Olbrich and Carol Malcom, of Frankfort. They decided this year for the first time to tackle one of the 20-foot-by-20-foot community garden plots at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort.

On a warm Tuesday morning, they filled their little basket with carrots, cherry tomatoes and jalapeno peppers while eagerly anticipating the zucchini crop that now is flowering nicely. Their harvest also is bound for a food pantry.

Back at the Manhattan garden, there are no signs of the summer drought. Among the lush green rows, volunteers from many towns and many walks of life have picked more than 10,000 pounds of fresh veggies in recent weeks.

What could have been a tale of woe about the drought drying up this much-needed food supply has instead become like the Biblical story of the scant loaves and fishes that fed thousands, with small groups of volunteers and a few plants blossoming into the ability to feed thousands this summer.

“It’s amazing. We have been very blessed,” Frankfort Township food pantry director Jodi Gallagher-Dilling said. “We’ve had such an abundance, we shared with others. I don’t want it to go to waste.”

“I expected to be depleted, but so far, this is the best summer we’ve had,” Kathie Johnson said at the New Lenox Township food pantry.

Glad to help

Despite dealing with weather, weeding and watering that goes with gardening, these benevolent gardeners all claimed to be having fun while filling a great need.

“It’s a labor of love,” Steve Smith said of the Manhattan Friendship Garden. “It’s pretty rewarding. We’re helping a lot of people. It’s not for personal glory.”

Smith and his wife, Jan, were among eight people from a Sanctuary Manhattan Lutheran Church Bible study group who were looking for a way to be of service to others. They decided to grow a small garden last year to stock the Manhattan food pantry. They got an acre of land donated by Bormet’s neighbors, Don and Betty Werner, and picked 17,000 pounds of produce.

Now incorporated as a nonprofit, the organization has given fresh vegetables this year to 23 agencies, including pantries, churches, group homes and shelters, and they keep their ears open to families in need.

They have another one-acre site further south, where they’ve grown pumpkins and sweet corn (smaller ears this year, but quite tasty), and a half-acre to the east for more corn and melons.

As volunteers fill the containers with red, purple, green and yellow veggies, Bormet hauls them up to a table near the driveway to be weighed and divvied up for the intended recipients.

Some of the produce is sold at a Saturday morning farmstand in downtown Manhattan to raise money for next year’s plants and seeds. Any leftovers are given away at the church.

The Friendship gardeners hope to expand next year, and buy a tractor.

“It’s just a group of people who want to help their fellow man. It’s the right thing to do,” said Dale’s brother, Carl Bormet. “And the kids who come are learning to like vegetables.”

He’s hoping the frost stays away because there’s still a lot to pick.

Crews already have gathered more than 14,000 pounds this season, easily within reach of their goal of 20,000 pounds this year, with pumpkins still to pick.

“It just feels good helping someone,” volunteer Dawn Koerner said, as she and her husband Gary picked yellow squash. They found the Manhattan Friendship Garden when they were seeking a community service project for their teenage daughter. They thought it would be a “punishment” for her violating her curfew, but she enjoyed it. They keep returning because they liked meeting people and sharing recipes.

“It’s nice to be part of this,” Gary Koerner said.

Olbrich and Malcom also involve their children in their gardening project, which benefits the Frankfort Township food pantry, where both volunteer.

Malcom’s three children, who range in age from 8 to 12, used to run a lemonade stand to raise money for the food pantry.

“They were getting older and needed to do more,” Malcom said of her idea to take on the community garden plot.

Olbrich figured she’d be needed as well.

“When she said it was a 20-by-20 plot, I said, ‘You’re going to need help,’ ” Olbrich said. Her teenage son put up the fencing that protects their patch from wildlife intruders.

“A lot of people are excited to see the fresh produce. Fresh vegetables are the best things for you,” she said. “And it’s one less expense people have to incur.”

Always a need

In the summer months, supplies are low and the demand is greater at the local pantries because kids are home and not getting free lunches at school, Olbrich said.

Not all pantries have bountiful supplies of fresh produce. Donna Allen said fresh sweet corn “is always well-received,” but this year at the Crete Township food pantry, she’s received one burlap bag full of corn, compared with three or four bags last year.

“It’s really nice for people to get fresh vegetables,” she said. “They are looking for it. We can always use it.”

Vicky Sline, director of the Rich Township food pantry, which serves 1,000 families per month, said she is not getting as much produce as usual.

Making matter worse, she said earlier this month the Dominick’s Food Store in Matteson, which donated breads and pastries to the pantry for years, suddenly stopped. Dominick’s officials did not return phone calls seeking an explanation.

“People in America are hungry,” Sline said. “These are honest-to-goodness good people but they have no choice any more. It’s a very different time.”

These gardeners know that.

Volunteers will continue picking produce at the Manhattan Friendship Garden through October, or until freezing temperatures set in.

Olbrich and Malcom already have decided to plant their plot again next year.

“It’s worth it,” Malcom said.



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