South Paris Garden founder Barb Murphy, with her companion Marley, takes a break from harvesting garlic last Thursday. This is the first year they have grown garlic at the garden. Murphy judged its success as a 6 out of 10. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — More than 20 years ago master gardener Barbara Murphy of West Paris needed a way to help students in her Cooperative Extension gardening program fulfill their volunteer training and launched a community vegetable program, Plant a Row for the Hungry. Her vision resulted in a summer tradition that continues today at gardens in South Paris and Rumford and managed by Gardeners Growing Health Communities (GGHC), an organization manned by about two dozen dedicated volunteers.

“We started the non-profit in 2015,” explained GGHC Board of Directors President Phoebe Call of South Paris. “The next year we received a grant from the Maine Community Foundation, which we used to build our storage shed, cold room and materials for raised beds and fencing.”

The garden in South Paris sits on a parcel with a donated lease at Oxford Hills Law on Park Street in South Paris. The garden in Rumford was started in a plot originally on paper mill property by Hosmer Field that has since been donated to the town.

The cabbage crop at the South Paris Garden is growing well this year. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Residents around Oxford Hills are welcome to collect fresh produce from the gardens. Food pick-up is every Thursday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church of South Paris at 217 Main Street. The weekly distribution will continue until at least the end of September.

Distribution in Rumford happens on Wednesday afternoons at the Parish of the Holy Savior, 125 Main Ave. in Rumford.

“Last year we served about 140 clients,” said Call. “With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to threaten the economy I expect our list to grow more this year.

“No one is required to provide proof of residence to participate. And we try and make sure that larger families receive bigger portions.”

Call said that even with restrictions on public gatherings and social distancing, clients will not have to worry about much changing this year when they come to gather their shares.

“We can use the same process as in previous years, since it takes place outside in the church parking lots already,” she said. “There are rows of tables and they’ll be further apart now.

“Allotments of food are determined by amount of food available and there are usually left-overs for people to collect once the distribution is done. This year we will have grab bags available so people can come and go quickly. We will also bring the food to their car if they prefer.”

There are two casualties that COVID-19 had on GGHC’s 2020 plans. The vegetable plot that volunteers tend to at Maine Veterans’ Home in South Paris could not be planted this year.

“We wanted to do it this year, but there are just too many risks for exposure to the residents so we decided not to,” Call said. “And we normally have volunteers that prepare recipes for clients to sample when they pick up. But we won’t be able to use church kitchens this year so there will be no tastings.”

Even without recipes to taste-test, GGHC volunteers will continue to educate people on fresh foods, such as ways to use beet greens to prepare dishes at home. This is the second year the gardens will include herbs for distribution, meal ingredients that are new to some clients.

This year’s bean harvest is underway at the South Paris Garden. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

The bean plants have already started producing and several beds of leaf lettuce are growing well. Call expects rotations of chard, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, cabbage and some broccoli throughout the season. Most of the broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini and peppers were lost to a grub infestation, but volunteers have cleaned those beds out and are already planting replacement vegetables.

Call said that produce from gardens beyond the GGHC’s plots will find its way to distribution days and help make up for lost cukes and zukes.

“Our volunteers always have more food in their gardens than they can use and they bring it every week. Some people just donate produce – last year a local farmer brought an incredible amount of extra food to us for distribution.”

Board member Maureen Howard of Otisfield, who oversees fundraising, said that local businesses have ensured that the program can grow this year along with its demand. The group decided that with people hurting financially they would skip their appeal letters to individuals, instead reaching out to businesses not badly affected by the pandemic.

“Even without our regular appeal, some supporters continued to donate,” she said. “And with the generosity of our corporate benefactors, we are only down $400 from last year’s fundraising campaign.”

Howard signaled out several local businesses for their sponsorship of GGHC:

Dirigo Federal Credit Union

Hannaford Community Relations Program

Howard Dead River Company

The Maine Community Foundation

ND Paper, Inc.

Norway Savings Bank

Oxford Federal Credit Union

Paris Autobarn

River Valley Rotary Club

Rotary Club of Oxford Hills

The Town of Otisfield

The Vertex Foundation

Howard said the success of this year’s corporate fundraising will make it possible to purchase foods not grown at the gardens like corn, apples, winter squash from local producers. Seeds and other supplies are sourced from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds and Paris Farmer’s Union.

Starting last year a grant from Doris Buffett’s Foundation (Sunshine Lady Humanitarian Grants program) provided a stipend for GGHC to hire a garden manager for its two gardens. Iz Yamkura is managing the South Paris garden and Deborah Richmond is her counterpart up in Rumford, overseeing the garden there for her second year.

“Last year our gardens provided 13,000 pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits,” said Howard. “Our direct relationships with participants help break down barriers to healthy eating while providing opportunities to learn new gardening and cooking skills.

“We also offer an 8-week garden training course followed by hands-on training time in the gardens. This is just a wonderful asset to the community. In a time of social and political polarization, we are a group of volunteers offering kindness along with a zucchini or two.”

The South Paris Garden holds 22 raised beds that will be harvested and replanted throughout the season. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

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