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Reading, Writing, Carrots & Cucumbers

New City School students plant, harvest crops to benefit area church food ministries

Originally published in the West End Word, April 25, 2012

Art Culbert tends to crops at the community garden. (Photo by Diana Linsley)

The mention of “food pantry” calls to mind boxes and bags of packaged foods and canned goods. But the shelves of two Central West End food pantries also include fresh produce, grown locally at a volunteer-powered community garden.

Earth Day marked the first anniversary of a community garden tucked away at the back of an open lot in the 5000 block of Waterman Avenue. In its first year, the garden has yielded more than 1,000 pounds of all manner of vegetables and fruits to benefit the community.

The garden, the mastermind of retired professor Arthur Culbert, supplies food for the Trinity Episcopal Church Food Ministry as well as an educational experience for children at the nearby New City School. Students help plant and harvest the crops as a yearlong school project. This year, the Second Presbyterian Church Good Ground Pantry will become the second beneficiary of the garden.

Early in April, students already were harvesting lettuce to be delivered to the food pantry. One Friday afternoon, three classes of fourth graders rotated shifts tending the garden. One class planted celery seedlings they had nurtured in the classroom since March 4.

“We have been planting vegetables and fruit trees,” said Sarah Herbster, a fourth-grader in Carla Duncan’s class. “We are growing celery at school.” She said she finds the project interesting and “can’t wait to try all the cherries.”

Her friend, Sydney Panagos, is partial to the strawberries. “It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s fantastic.”

Sydney Panagos (left) and Sarah Herbster pose at the garden. (Photo by Eileen P. Duggan)

The fourth-grade class’s theme for this year is “Citizens Making A Difference,” and the three classes — led by Duncan, Hallie Lindemann and Anne Simmons — decided to make the garden their community project for the last month of school, said Duncan.

“We’re excited,” Duncan said. “It’s been great. It’s 500 steps from school.”

“The Farm,” as Culbert calls it, produces from early spring through fall, beginning with the planting of lettuce and other greens in March. Tomatoes, beans, eggplant and other common summer vegetables arrive in the summer, and the pumpkins are ready for picking in the fall. The garden also includes asparagus, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce (three types), okra, onions, peas, potatoes, spinach, squash, strawberries and Swiss chard.

Fruit trees — to bear cherries, peaches, plums and apples — were planted last fall through a naming rights program, which helped pay for this year’s seeds and supplies. The New City students will create signs honoring the donors of each tree.

To keep hungry squirrels, rabbits and other critters away from all those crops, the garden includes marigolds and strategically placed mesh bags filled with dog hair donated by Wolfgang’s Pet Shop, 330 N. Euclid Ave.

Kevin Vatterott (from left), Reed Garland and Jordan Caradine, fourth-grade students at New CIty School, work in the community garden located just a few hundred feet from the school on Waterman Avenue. (Photo by Diana Linsley)

Culbert, a nearby resident and former president and CEO of Health Literary Missouri, got the idea for the garden while walking through the neighborhood. He enlisted HLM intern Mary Scheuermann, then a graduate student at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, to help with the garden.

“Mary was an equal participant in its development, doing the work for school credit,” Culbert said. Scheuermann left the project upon completion of her internship, and Culbert took it over as a personal project, independent of the agency.

Before they started the garden, Culbert decided to donate the bounty to Trinity’s Food Ministry, just a few blocks away. First, he visited the pantry to ask the clients what foods they would like. That’s how the garden came to include okra and collards, vegetables he may not have thought about otherwise. On the other hand, Culbert found that the clients grew to like arugula, although some of them had been unfamiliar with it before, he said.

In addition to the New City students, Culbert and his wife Nancy are the chief volunteers, but a retired neighbor waters the garden daily, with the land owner, Waterman-Delmar LLC, providing the water.

Culbert’s 31-year history as a professor of public health and medicine at Boston University has come in handy on the garden project. After retiring and moving to St. Louis with his wife, a native St. Louisan, he joined Health Literacy Missouri six years ago. He recently retired from the organization.

“Now this is my hobby,” Culbert said. Drawing on his teaching expertise, he develops lesson plans for the students.

Real Change

This year the garden project is participating in the Central West End Association’s Real Change initiative. Billed as an alternative to giving to panhandlers, Real Change allows CWE visitors to insert coins in four specially marked parking meters in order to fund local charitable purposes. As a Real Change beneficiary, the garden will use the donations to purchase seeds and plants for the garden.

“It all stays within the Central West End,” Culbert said.

Last year, Culbert purchased all the start-up supplies on his own dime, he said.

In 2011, about $100 worth of seeds produced 1,000 pounds of food, worth about $2,000 retail, Culbert estimated.

Trinity Food Ministry, 600 N. Euclid Ave., has been providing a hot lunch every Sunday and a weekday food pantry for more than 30 years. The pantry is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Culbert aims to deliver fresh produce at least two of those days each week during the growing season, he said.

On a Wednesday in mid-April most of the bags of lettuce were gone, after a rush of clients — 67 in all — the day before.

“We’re very grateful for the food from the garden,” said Food Ministry Director Steve Turner. “I really appreciate what’s happening.”

Each client of the ministry — 8,000 people were served last year — gets a bag containing cabbage, potatoes, rice, onion, oranges, margarine, eggs, and some canned and packaged food. The extra produce is available on a separate table. In addition to getting food donations from various groups, the ministry buys food, especially this time of year. The pantry gets plenty of support during the Thanksgiving and holiday season, but in the spring and summer, volunteers must purchase even canned goods, Turner said.

Second Presbyterian Church’s Good Ground Pantry, 4501 Westminster Place, opens for clients every Saturday morning. The emergency pantry provides a two- to three-day supply of food to the hungry, serving about 3,000 clients per year. The Waterman “farm” will deliver produce there every other week this year, Culbert said.

The availability of fresh food to those in need “is an important issue,” Culbert said, “and one the Central West End is working to address.”

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