By Frances Stebbins
Being Thanksgiving and a time to gather in, as a familiar hymn puts it, let us look this week at Community Gardens.
Another hymn, less familiar, but relevant to the American holiday:
“We plow the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand…
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all his love.”
Salem’s Fresh Ideas Garden (FIG) is cleaned up for the winter now as is one belonging to Wheatland Lutheran Church in Botetourt. Both have been maintained specifically to provide fresh vegetables for the community food pantries that help those in need.
The Salem garden in particular was brought to mind when I heard Lisa Garst, former member of Salem City Council and long active in Salem Presbyterian Church, tell a Salem Museum audience last week about her experience in renovating the Dilly Dally historic South Salem community structure .
Taking on this project, Garst told me, has reduced her involvement in the Fresh Ideas Garden which is off Clay Street on property “Salem Pres” owns. She, however, was one of the principal players in getting the garden started in 2014, and she filled me in on the story.
Garst credited Eric Naschold, a senior adult then living in Salem, for inspiration in starting the garden. He had long wanted, she said, to get the city to support a big space where fresh food could be grown for those households who eat poorly because of low incomes. The 2009 Great Recession, as it’s now called, had increased the need for healthful meals as seen by those who work at the city’s Salem-Roanoke County Community Food Pantry.
Finances were managed as the garden was started five years ago by the city bearing some costs and the church providing the level plot of land, which is about 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Other groups have made financial contributions, but the work has largely been done by volunteers.
A web page for the garden includes pictures taken about three years ago of volunteer workers from several Salem congregations which mainly support Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries (SAEM).
Trying to find out about the current status of the garden – I have watched it over the summers when I have paid my utility bill at the nearby Salem City Hall – I found information hard to come by. Loren Walker, a Salem Presbyterian member who has put in time as a volunteer, noted that this was a bad season with its periods of heavy rain at planting time followed by a hot dry spell of six weeks in the optimal growing period.
The shortage of volunteers is a chronic issue; many pictured in the better days are no longer active in the project. A late report reveals that the Salem Pres youth group worked at cleaning off the garden.
I’m most familiar with the Salem garden, but a number of churches in the valley have been more or less successful with them.
One is Wheatland Lutheran in Botetourt County where a garden, new this year, produced 1,200 pounds of fresh vegetables for the ecumenical food bank housed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Fincastle. An average of 15 members of the small rural parish worked in the garden the past summer. The church’s pastor, Chuck Miller, wants the garden to include members of other nearby churches in the future.
Several years ago, when I visited the separate Food Pantry building Bethel Baptist Church maintains on Mount Regis Hill, I learned of that congregation’s garden. For congregations with a bit of extra land who want to feed the hungry in a practical way, a community garden offers a place for such activity. Just bear in mind that sustaining such an effort in the humid weeks of weeding and picking takes more commitment than retirement-age members and the busy younger may be able to sustain.
An hour on First Thursday Nights at Mill Mountain Coffee in downtown Salem recently enlightened me about “An Inside Look at Inside Out.” Dr. Daisy Ball, assistant professor of criminal justice at Roanoke College, told about the new major available for young adults who may be considering correctional work as a career,
A feature of the program, as four students who have experienced it said, is the actual contact with non-violent inmates of the local jail, which happens to border the campus.
Students apply for the experience that involves a three-hour visit on Friday afternoons to the jail and sharing conversation or an activity such as games with an inmate. Ball emphasized the rigorous background checks of both inmates and students chosen. For the selected, credit is given, and, as one female participant put it, “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”