Community gardeners deliver 38 pounds of produce to N.S. Food Pantry

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – It was just the first of many harvests to come, grown by and for town residents, in an effort that will benefit both volunteers and their neighbors in need.

Residents working in the North Smithfield Community Garden delivered 38 pounds of fresh produce this week to the North Smithfield Food Pantry.

It is the inaugural year for the community effort, an initiative started by the town’s Parks & Recreation Committee and spearheaded by Chairperson Ann Lilley, with help from Recreation Director Kate Pasquariello.

The 30 X 50 foot garden was built atop an open space between what was once the cafe-torium and administration buildings at the former Halliwell Elementary School on Victory Highway. The new facility is the first element of plans to utilize the 32-acre space, which served students for more than 30 years before they were relocated to other town schools in 2019.

While the effort to rehabilitate and reuse the property is a long-term project expected to take several years, the garden was fast-tracked to begin in the spring of 2021, thanks to a recommendation by the Halliwell Review Committee and unanimous approval by members of the Town Council.

From fencing and garden beds, to a decorative box filled with supplies, the new facility was built by a group of around a dozen volunteers. In addition to providing fresh, pesticide-free produce to locals in need, the garden also serves to bring life and beauty to the formerly vacant space, which in the past has been a frequent target of vandals. Those involved stop by frequently to tend the crops, creating activity that may help to deter undesirables from the town-owned land.

“It appears to be going very well,” said Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski of the initiative. “They have a good location.”

Wire fencing now guards rows of thriving plants, cared for by volunteers who have developed a sense of ownership in the project, in what is perhaps the first community-run effort of its kind in town.

Lilley, a gardener herself for some 40 years, has guided a core group with tried-and-true methods, with the aid of a small budget of less than $1,000 for supplies, provided through the town’s Public Works Department.

And on Tuesday, July 27 a half dozen members of the gardening group showed up to pick and pack the first of many summer harvests of squash, radishes, chard, onions, basil, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Half of the bounty – produce harvested in the first two weeks of each month – will be split among the volunteers, with the second half donated to the North Smithfield Food Pantry, operated from the basement of Slatersville Congregational Church. The pantry serves up to 60 town families in a given month, with food passed out on select Tuesdays and Saturdays to ensure that no one goes hungry.

For volunteers like resident Jennifer Keith, the new garden provides both a chance to help others, and the opportunity to learn methods and practices from more experienced gardeners. Keith took up the healthy hobby in 2020, like many others spending more time at home amid a pandemic.

“It’s been a great experience,” Keith said.

Zwolenski said there may be a chance to expand the facility next year, space-permitting, and potentially offer family plots, giving those without the room at home the opportunity to grow their own food. While admitting that he’s, “not a farmer,” and would rely of the preferences of those more versed in the work, the administrator said that in the future, the garden could be moved further into the sun to create a longer growing season.

“It’s a great job that the are providing food to the community food bank, and wonderful to see neighbors helping neighbors,” Zwolenski said.

Those who would like to learn more about the garden project can contact Lilley at jslilley@yahoo.com.

The pantry is also seeking volunteers, and residents who may want to help should call (401) 678-0356.

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