Food bank gardening with surprising yields

Kalamazoo County’s Giving Garden provides fresh produce to the food-insecure population.

garden with potatoes growing
Mulched potatoes in The Giving Garden | Photo Credit: Brenda Kolkman

Twice a month, the vehicles begin lining up one-by-one as early as two hours before the mobile food distribution center opens in the parking lot of a southwest Michigan church. By the time the last boxes of food are placed in over 100 trunks, hatches, and backseats, more than 400 families have something nutritious to eat for the next four days.

“About half of these families are new to being food insecure,” said Lori West, co-chair of the local Pandemic Relief Food Program that coordinates the mobile food distribution. The Galesburg location is one of seven mobile distribution sites throughout Kalamazoo County partnering with area food bank Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes to provide perishable and shelf-stable foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables. There’s no paperwork for clients to complete, no eligibility requirements, and currently, distribution is the first and third Thursdays of the month on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the growing season, recipients receive fresh vegetables and greens grown in The Giving Garden, on one of four acres of land donated to the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener program by Humphrey Products and Kendall Electric. Located in Kalamazoo County near the corner of East N Avenue and Sprinkle Road, the long strip of garden dotted with weathered bluebird houses is situated between the two companies and the Grand Elk railroad.

In 1997, Humphrey Products donated the land to grow food for the local food bank at the request of MSU Extension Master Gardener Mike Blakely. Since then, the garden has produced thousands of pounds of produce for local families in need. The Giving Garden not only provides much needed food, but also educates the community with tours, and classes including raised bed production, weed identification, straw bale gardening, and identifying insects. In past years, it even had a dedicated beekeeper.

Brenda Kolkman, a retired IT manager and Advanced Extension Master Gardener is one of several coordinators of The Giving Garden who has helped organize its efforts since 2009. Harvey Myers, a retired pharmaceutical associate director, scientist, and fellow Advanced Extension Master Gardener, has worked side-by-side with Kolkman and others for the last decade, managing a small corps of dedicated volunteers and gardening the plot. Myers noted that one of his sons is a ‘95 MSU alum and joked that he left the house to go to MSU and never came back.

“It warms the heart to know we are helping people,” said Myers. “I also enjoy the interaction with other Extension Master Gardeners – exchanging ideas on how to treat bugs and diseases.” Myers has also volunteered for Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes and knows firsthand how much people in need appreciate getting fresh produce.

Kolkman said 12,300 pounds of produce – three pounds per family per week – is the current yield during the growing season. Several years ago, The Giving Garden produced over 30,000 pounds of produce in one season. With a lot more help, the garden could far exceed that number; especially with the three acres still available to be used.

“There are very few people helping with a lot of dedication,” said Kolkman. “I know of at least three to four people who are very dedicated to The Giving Garden and now we have a good dozen who work on it consistently.” Kolkman added she has many volunteers show interest but only a dozen show up as the dependable work group.

“It’s a lot of work and the end result is good, but we don’t want to underestimate the camaraderie,” said Kolkman. She noted that for some volunteers, The Giving Garden was their only human interaction, albeit distanced, during the 2020 summer of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Kolkman and Myers welcome the help of fellow Extension Master Gardeners and add that volunteers without Extension Master Gardener status are also welcome – they just need to bring their own tools and acknowledge they are volunteering at their own risk. For those who would rather not dig in the dirt or pull weeds, there are many tasks including equipment maintenance, cleaning vegetables, packing, and recording that need volunteers.

Over time, Myers said they have learned what grows well and what doesn’t in the clay soil. With the help of the City of Portage, several loads of leaves are donated for mulching as much of the garden as possible to keep the weeds down and retain moisture.

“Tomatoes, potatoes, collards, peppers, and cabbages are what people seem to enjoy,” said Kolkman.

Myers added “We also grow pumpkins for the children of Humphrey Products; those not selected are donated to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.” In addition, The Giving Garden also produces hundreds of pounds of cantaloupe, watermelon, onions, and a variety of squashes.

Each growing season begins with a small group of local greenhouses propagating seeds in professionally controlled environments to provide The Giving Garden the best possible chance at success. Next, a local farmer volunteers to plow the garden and another local volunteer helps trap a few nuisance critters. Throughout the summer, Kolkman and Myers are rallying volunteers while managing the needs of the garden, and a few spouses get assigned to various tasks.

“I have worked with Brenda for many years, and she has the personality about her that helps keep the group we do have, together, and keeps our eyes on the prize,” said Myers. “Without her, we wouldn’t be as successful.”

Kolkman, Myers, and the small group of volunteers are deeply committed to The Giving Garden and are willing to share their knowledge with members of the community with the hope that more people will volunteer, donate resources, or start a food bank garden in their own communities.

“When I was teaching a community class on raised beds, one of the students gave me a big hug - she had been a recipient of fresh produce from The Giving Garden through Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes,” recalled Kolkman, adding how much this warmed her heart.

For more information on how to get involved with The Giving Garden or how to start a food bank garden in your community, please contact MSU Extension consumer and veteran’s horticulture educator Christopher Imler at imlerchr@msu.edu or 269-779-8750.

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