Garden provides fresh foods for needy families

The garden at St. Louis Parish in Austin has come a long way over the last few months. Parishioners have worked together to plant vegetables, which are distributed at the parish food pantry. (Photos courtesy Jerry Horton)

By Michele Chan Santos
Correspondent

A few short months ago, the garden at St. Louis King of France Parish in North Austin was simply an idea.
Today, it’s a half-acre fenced garden with drip irrigation, where neatly tended rows of mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, peas, snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are growing. 
Eventually, produce from the garden –– parishioners call it “our little farm” –– will help feed the needy families who come to the St. Louis Food Pantry, which is open on Saturdays from 8:30 to 11 a.m. and draws between 70 and 100 families each weekend (it’s open every Saturday except for fifth Saturdays). 
The garden is the brainchild of Father Larry Covington, pastor of St. Louis. He asked Andrew Walsh, a parishioner and the owner of Terra Dura Landscapes, to head up the project.
“The idea for this came some time back when a few parishioners were providing produce for our food pantry from a local community garden,” Father Covington said. “When they were no longer able to do that, it left a gap in what we were able to provide to those who come to us in need. It occurred to me that we have some 10 acres in the back of our property that could be used for the same purpose. In conversation with Andrew Walsh and his wife Anna, who are parishioners with extensive garden experience, it was brought up that we have a busy food pantry ministry but are unable to provide fresh produce. Their enthusiasm for starting our parish garden was irresistible.”
In addition to the Walshes, Father Covington is grateful to Andrew Graham, an irrigation expert, who provided and installed the drip irrigation system. 
“His hard work in many areas has been a real blessing,” Father Covington said. “Dr. Jerry Horton of Down Home Ranch is another parishioner who sees possibilities everywhere. We are very grateful to him for his advice, generosity, equipment and supervision.”
With a leadership team in place, the garden ministry needed volunteers to put their plan into action. Last summer, a call was put out for volunteers.
“Social media was used to spread the word, coupled with our website and with sharing the vision with the entire parish from the pulpit. Interest was immediate and keen. Volunteers with a wide scope of experience and expertise meant that we could move forward quickly,” Father Covington explained.
Andrew Walsh and his wife, Anna, now lead a group of about 75 volunteers. 
“Seeing everyone rally around this project was really amazing,” Andrew Walsh said. “It’s wonderful to see people care so much. It’s cool to see people be excited and want to bring their children to the garden.”
About half of the fenced lot is currently planted; the other half will be planted in the spring, Andrew Walsh said. Before, this space was part of a field behind St. Louis Catholic School, located next to the parish.
“It’s amazing how Andrew and Anna have pulled this together in three months,” said Brenda Beltran, business administrator at St. Louis. “That we already have food growing is incredible.” 
Anna Walsh coordinates the volunteers, who come in groups of three to five; their work days are Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m.
A wide range of people from the parish have contributed their time and talent to the garden ministry.
“The Knights of Columbus have worked with us all along providing sustenance for hard working ‘farmers’ and giving their time and energy to the cause,” Father Covington said.
“I have been encouraged by the community building aspect of this effort. For the most part the impetus and success has come from our young adult community as they are very interested in investing themselves in the kind of effort that produces tangible results,” Father Covington said.
The parish picked up the initial costs of establishing the garden, paying for fencing, a tool shed, compost and irrigation supplies.
“In the long run we hope to form a Garden Guild whose focus will be sustaining the effort financially. Fortunately the cost of watering is negated by the installation of a well on the parish grounds,” Father Covington said.
Future plans include greenhouses and a chicken coop. Eventually, “most of what we raise will be turned over to the food pantry and the rest we will sell in the narthex after Mass on Sundays to raise funds for the seeds, and other needs for sustaining this ministry,” Father Covington explained.
As the months pass, the garden will continue to grow, tended by a dedicated group of parishioners.
“I am enthusiastic about all of this,” Father Covington said. “I give thanks to God for the many people who give so much of their time, energy, and resources as we work together to enhance our outreach and learn the lessons that come from cooperating with God’s creation.”
To learn more about St. Louis’ garden, go to the garden ministry blog at http://stlouisgarden.wordpress.com/. 

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