Local church grows donations for food shelf

The community garden behind First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul helps support the local food shelf, Neighbors Inc. As of last year, the church had donated nearly two tons of fresh produce to the nonprofit. Hannah Burlingame/Review

Behind First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul sits a fenced off section of land. Inside, a variety of vegetables and plants await — some of the produce is for personal use by those who rent the plots — the rest is grown for another purpose: donation.

Julie Close has been part of the community garden for all five years of its existence. The garden started after First Presbyterian became an Earth Care Congregation, a part of an environmental initiative put on by the Presbyterian Church.

“One of the activities that they encourage people to do is look at unused land and [ask], would it make sense to turn it into community gardens?” Close says. 

The church had given space to Hmong refugees for gardens when they came to Minnesota, she adds, so there was a history of gardening on church property. In the congregation, there were a lot of gardeners, too, so people were open to the idea.

The garden is split into three parts: one for the Master Gardeners of Dakota County seed trial; plots that can be rented; and the community garden, which grows food for Neighbors Inc., a South St. Paul food shelf.


Giving back

First Presbyterian was one of the congregations that founded Neighbors Inc.

“So there’s that connection to the food shelf, longtime connection,” Close says, pointing out too there are people in the congregation who, at times in their lives, have needed the food shelf.

On Sundays, the church holds a farmers’ market where congregants can buy fresh produce. What isn’t purchased, along with cash contributions, is donated to the food shelf; any produce harvested during the week goes to Neighbors Inc., as well.

As of 2016, the church had donated 3,714 pounds of fresh vegetables and $3,371 in cash to the food shelf. Last year alone, it delivered 1,314 pounds of vegetables.

The Master Gardeners of Dakota County’s seed trial garden grows “powerhouse vegetables.” Janice Gestner, the lead gardener for the Master Gardeners of Dakota County Vegetable Trials committee, says the plants tested are termed powerhouse because of the food value they add.

The master gardeners grow a variety of Brussels sprouts, broccoli, collard greens, tomatoes, cauliflower and yellow carrots. 

Gestner says in exchange for the plot at the church, her group also donates produce to Neighbors Inc., following First Presbyterian’s lead and because it’s a way to promote access to locally produced food.

“We have an excellent harvest each year, and sharing the vegetables with the local food shelf supported by the church seems like the best choice,” Gestner says.


‘It’s like gold’

Scott Andrews, the food shelf manager at Neighbors Inc., says he started the job about four years ago, around the same time First Presbyterian started donating food.

“I wasn’t aware they were just starting out also. It didn’t seem unusual to me but it did seem like a good idea,” he says.

The community garden donates a variety of vegetables, including tomatoes and cucumbers.  

Andrews says in terms of quality, the donated produce can’t be beat — local, fresh food doesn’t get better than this.

Throughout the year, the food shelf receives most of its produce from grocery stores through what’s called “food rescue.” The stores donate produce they don’t think can be sold.

“Compared to that, produce we get from the community gardens is exceptional. I always tell them it’s like gold,” Andrews says

The donations from First Presbyterian and other community gardens is what keeps Neighbors Inc. going, he says, adding it’s members of the community looking out for others around them.

Andrews says First Presbyterian is a great partner with Neighbors Inc. “It’s natural for them to want to help in this way too. We’re really glad they are.”


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com


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