Banking on freshness:
Stevi community garden provides nourishment, know-how at every level
By ROD DANIEL Staff Reporter
Three years ago two board members of Pantry Partners Food Bank planted the seeds for a community garden in Stevensville. But it took members of the elementary school's after-school program to bring the garden into fruition.
Kathy Belke and Arnie Polanchek thought a community garden might provide a source of fresh produce to the hundreds of north valley families that each month utilize the food bank. And since, after 12 years, the food bank had just set up shop in an old house on Park Street on school property, the two approached the Stevensville School Board asking for a piece of ground to till.
"The school board and superintendent were very supportive," said Polanchek, a former Stevensville school trustee and current vice-president of Pantry Partners. "They let us use school property and have been there for us every step of the way."
Close enough to the school's baseball field that it surely sees its share of foul balls, the garden is but a stone's throw away from the food bank and just west of the railroad tracks. And the fact that it lies within the school's deer-proof, chain-link fence, means gardeners can water and weed their veggies and leave knowing their produce will probably still be there the next day.
Belke, who currently serves as Pantry Partners president, said volunteers broke ground for the garden in 2002 and created a single raised bed for a smattering of vegetables and some raspberry plants.
"That first year we carried water in buckets from the food bank," she said. "That got a little old. The second year we ran a hose from the food bank. This year we got a donation from Bitterroot Restoration and laid metal irrigation pipe."
Aside from its improved irrigation methods, the garden got a real shot in the arm two years ago when Stevi's After-school Program director Patricia Wilson joined the team, bringing with her a legion of able-bodied students. Serving as many as 90 children at one time, depending on the season, the program provides educational activities outside the classroom for elementary school kids.
Forty-eight kids are registered in this summer's program, Wilson said, and many work regularly at the garden, which this year boasts 24 garden beds, each bordered with durable railroad ties.
"We've got a dozen or so kids who come out and weed, water and harvest during the summer," she said. "When school starts even more kids will participate."
Last fall, she said, kids in the after-school program raised pumpkins in the garden for the community's annual Thanksgiving dinner.
"They harvested and processed the pumpkins and baked 72 pies for the Thanksgiving dinner," Wilson said. "It was a great experience for them to learn all that's involved the food that we eat."
Polanchek, who is on the advisory board for the after-school program, said Wilson's innovative approach to education has made Stevensville's program the prototype for the entire state.
"Patricia runs the top-notch program in Montana," he said. "And she's made all the difference in the world in getting this community garden going."
Because of Belke and Wilson's diligent community outreach and the generosity of local businesses, the third-year garden is a showplace. The wide pathways are lined with plastic donated by Bitterroot Restoration (BRI) and covered with wood chips from Custom Log Homes. The beds themselves each contain a heaping helping of topsoil left over from the excavation for the elementary school gym and music complex and have been augmented with truckloads of potting soil given by BRI.
"BRI has had a lot to do with this garden," Wilson said. "I don't think we could have done it without them."
The most recent donation from the Corvallis native plant restoration business is an 18-by-20-foot hoop house that was given in the wake of a pumpkin-killing, mid-June frost that, Wilson said, thwarted her kids' plans of repeating their Thanksgiving pie-making heroics.
"The hoop house will allow us to extend our season on both ends," she said. "We'll probably get it up in August or September, and next year we'll be able to start our bedding plants in it."
Currently about half of the two dozen beds are tended by the kids and the rest are allotted to six different community members who have taken advantage of free gardening space. Most of the produce grown in the garden gets toted across the field to the food bank, where it's available to clients during business hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Wilson envisions expanding the garden to the east and south over the next year or two and planting a row of apple trees on the eastern edge, just inside the chain-link fence. She said having such a bountiful garden so close to the school and involving the kids in its planning and maintenance gives the children a sense of ownership for the project and, in the long run, may improve their eating habits.
"When the kids grow things themselves, they're more likely to try new vegetables," she said. "They try broccoli and green beans, and because it's so fresh, it tastes better."
This year, she said, in order to come up with a theme for their garden, the kids were asked to vote for their favorite food and decided it was pizza. Wilson then wrote down all the ingredients that make up a pizza, and together they came up with a list of what they could plant.
"We're growing things like tomatoes, oregano, basil and onions," she said. "And in the fall we'll make sauce out of the tomatoes and put the rest on a pizza. That way they'll learn what goes into a pizza. We're calling it our 'pizza garden.'"
Looking over the bountiful beds and their abundance of healthy vegetables, Polanchek said he is amazed at the progress that's been made since he and Belke conceived of the idea three years ago.
"It's come along a little faster than we thought," he said. "Once people know it's here I think it will really take off.
"It's a great partnership between the school, the food bank and the community. The school is an important part of the community, and this is something the school does for the town that most people don't realize."
Reporter Rod Daniel can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com