July 04, 2012 - The mere mention of feeding the hungry typically conjures up traditional images of soup kitchens and pantry shelves stocked with donated canned goods.
Spraying an all-natural insecticidal soap on vegetable plants in the FISH community garden is Orion Twp. resident Skylar Sheldon, 9. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
But Oxford-Orion FISH is taking advantage of a new trend in order to feed its clients fresh vegetables this summer.
It's called a community garden and the local charity is operating one off Lakeville Rd., just east of Barr Rd., in Addison Township on the site of what used to be the Mt. Grampian ski area.
"It's a way for us to teach our clients how to grow their own gardens, so they can get more food in their houses than what we can give them," said Sandy Klersy, pantry coordinator for FISH. "Our clients absolutely love it."
Located on a 40-acre plot of land now known as Faith Farms, FISH's community garden consists of approximately 40 raised beds, each measuring 10 feet by 20 feet.
Each FISH client, which can be a family or individual, gets their own bed to raise whatever vegetables they wish for their household.
"What's in their bed is theirs," Klersy said. "None of it goes to FISH unless they want to donate it to us. We had one lady who had so many radishes in hers, so she donated what she couldn't eat to FISH."
Clients are responsible for maintaining their own beds – including weeding and watering – plus the rest of the beds, which are considered communal.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, clients and FISH volunteers work together to keep the garden productive and healthy. "We kind of work around everybody's schedule," Klersy said.
They even have a Master Gardener, Mary Lorenz, of Goodrich, volunteering her time and considerable expertise.
When harvest time comes, the clients will get first pick of the fresh veggies and the rest will go to FISH for distribution to the other clients it serves.
So, what grows in the FISH garden? The better question is what doesn't grow there?
"This year, we have everything," Klersy said. "We have corn, tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, snow peas, squash, zucchini, everything."
They're evening growing "fancy" gourds.
"Some are going to look like snakes, some are going to look like swans and some are for making birdhouses," Klersy said.
The community garden is part of FISH's goal to encourage clients to make "healthier choices."
"I think everybody should have fresh vegetables," Klersy explained. "As everybody knows, it's the healthiest way to eat. One of the things we've been trying to promote in FISH is how to eat and cook healthier."
The clients are definitely responding to the idea. "They devour the vegetables," Klersy said. "Very rarely do we have to get rid of anything or throw anything away."
"I think it's awesome," said Lorraine St. Clair, of Orion Township, who works in the garden with her 9-year-old daughter, Skylar Sheldon. "It helps all the people that are struggling. It helps the whole community, not just us, and it's all fresh, which is good for you."
St. Clair's raised bed is home to tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, lettuce and basil.
"My daughter's a big vegetable eater," she said. "She'd rather eat vegetables than most other things. All the weird ones, like asparagus, she likes them."
"I'm a basil person. We put basil in everything," St. Clair added.
Plans for future expansion of the FISH garden are already being discussed.
"We'd like to get some fruit trees and more fresh produce," Klersy said.
This is actually the second year for FISH's community garden. Last year, the group wanted to keep it quiet because it was still in the experimental stage.
It all started when the owner of Faith Farms – a man who wishes to remain anonymous, the true hallmark of charity – approached the group with the idea.
Last year, the garden had only 12 beds and four clients working it.
"This year's even better. We've definitely bloomed," Klersy said. "We have more clients and so far they love it. We have one family that has two beds."
Not only does this anonymous individual provide the land, he also builds all the wooden boxes that surround each bed, fills them with dirt, supplies the water and provides anything else FISH can't obtain donations for.
"He's been a supporter of FISH for a while," Klersy said. "This was just another way for him to help us. He's just a wonderful person."
Three times a year, this same man donates some of the beef cattle he raises to FISH.
"We'll get one or two depending on how much freezer space we have," Klersy said. "He has it all processed professionally, then brings it to us. The clients love it because he'll bring roasts and steaks and hamburger. It's a real big treat for them."
FISH has received donations of garden tools and gloves from Home Depot in Orion Township, seeds from Oxford Home Garden & Pet, and flats of young vegetable plants from Wojo's in Brandon and Orion.
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating to the community garden is welcome to call FISH at (248) 628-3933 and leave a message. The group can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.