Volunteer works to provide organic food to Columbia's hungry

Monday, October 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Lily Chan volunteers at the Interfaith Garden at Congregation Beth Shalom. Chan leads other volunteers in maintaining the garden, from pulling weeds to putting in mulch. The food from the garden is donated to local food banks.

COLUMBIA — Lily Chan's first garden was a bust.

After growing up in Hong Kong without much access to homegrown produce, she wanted her daughters to have organic food. She began with tomatoes.

How to get involved

What: Congregation Beth Shalom/Newman Center Interfaith Garden

Where: Congregation Beth Shalom, 500 W. Green Meadows Road

When: Sunday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and Wednesdays, call for hours. 

Call: 573-443-4816

If you are interested in starting a new Interfaith Garden partnership, contact Monta Welch at 573-443-4717. 

Chan read books about gardening and carefully tended her tomato patch — only to end up with a few, scrawny ones.

"It wasn't a success," she said wistfully.

Fortunately for hundreds of Columbia families who struggle with hunger, Chan's gardening has improved. She is in charge of a garden plot that feeds low-income families in Boone County.

The garden is a joint venture between Congregation Beth Shalom and the Newman Center at MU. It occupies 3,000 square feet of land behind the synagogue and grows melons, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, squash, herbs and more.

"I believe everyone deserves to have fresh foods and live healthy," Chan said. "It makes me feel good that I can have an impact in these people's lives and treat the environment well."

Since 2009, the garden has donated over 3,530 pounds of organic produce to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, which has fed 1,176 low-income families in Boone County. 

Growing up in Hong Kong

Chan knows firsthand the hardship of living without clean water and fresh food.

Along with millions of other families in the city, the Chans had to ration water, which meant bath water was commonly used to tend to plants and take care of other household needs. The smog-filled air in Hong Kong also made it hard for anything healthy to grow.

"You learn to make the best of your resources," she said. "Waste not, want not."

It wasn't until Chan arrived in the United States to attend Washington State University in 1969 that she became aware of the environmental trouble in her own city.

"I thought everything was fine until I had to write an essay on pollution, and I realized how polluted my home was," she said.

Although Chan was inspired by what she learned through her essay, it took 35 years, a marriage, three moves, the birth of two daughters and a job as a secretary at Trinity Presbyterian Church to put her inspiration into action.

"I looked at people in the church who had full-time jobs and families to take care of but still found time to give of themselves," she said. "I knew it was time for me to give back."

Two faiths were connected

In 2004, Chan gave gardening another try by starting a small, 100-square-foot plot in her backyard. She took classes, attended workshops and did online research.

"This time was easier," she said, laughing. "I didn't have Google the first time around."

By 2006, she had expanded her patch to 400 square feet and began practicing organic gardening techniques. That led her to attend a workshop sponsored by Interfaith Care for Creation featuring the late master gardener Jim Wilson. 

During the workshop, Care for Creation's founder, Monta Welch, told attendees about the Interfaith Care for Creation Community Garden Project that connects people of different faiths to grow organic food for Columbia's poor.  

After the talk, Welch asked Chan if she'd be willing to get her own parish, St. Thomas More Newman Center involved, and she agreed.

"I wanted to help low-income families get fresh foods and promote healthy living," Chan said.

The garden at Congregation Beth Shalom had been dedicated as a space for youth to volunteer. In 2009, Chan, Welch and Brent Lowenberg, a member of the synagogue, began to establish a relationship between the two congregations.

For the next three months, the two congregations negotiated responsibilities while Chan recruited volunteers by passing out fliers between services at the Newman Center.

By May 2009, volunteers were ready, and the Interfaith Garden was a reality.

How the garden grows

The 50-by-60-foot parcel of land behind Congregation Beth Shalom was the perfect place for a garden — the grass was lush, the soil was hearty and perfect for planting. 

Chan, a team of 12 volunteers and four co-leaders worked the land three days a week tilling soil, planting seeds and tending the plants.

That year, the garden yielded 550 pounds of fruits and vegetables —  melons, tomatoes, peppers, okra, green beans, basil and other herbs — and created a greater understanding of differences between faiths.

"It was hard in the beginning," Chan said. "We had to learn about their holy days."

Mary Beth Litofsky, a co-leader of the garden, said differences in faith became secondary as people began to know each other and work toward a common community goal.

"We're more productive together," Litofsky said. "We don't focus on faith too much."

The second year, their harvest yielded only 330 pounds due to abundant rain that drowned out some of the plants. To avoid the same fate for the spring harvest, the team reorganized the garden and built three raised beds to provide better drainage.

In 2011, Newman Center member Tom Coudron and the United States Department of Agriculture offered to implement biological insect control in the garden. Over the next year, they monitored the level of pests and introduced a greater number of bugs that help the growing process.

By harvest's end, they had increased their production to 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables due to the change.

Late this summer, volunteers battled a cucumber beetle infestation due to drought and intense heat.

Looking for an organic solution, Chan and her team took the advice of Coudron and planted blue hubbard squash to trap the beetles and burn them.

"It was a learning experience," Chan said. "We're constantly figuring out how to fix issues organically. It's not quick, but it's better for the environment."

It's a community effort

This year has been the garden's best yet, with a 1,600-pound harvest, the addition of a fall crop, an expanded 60-by-75 plot due to a new fence built by a Boy Scout troop and continued support from the Community Garden Coalition, Columbia Garden Club, engineering honor societies and community volunteers.

With the harvest season winding down, Chan said she is looking forward to what next year will bring.

"I would like to have more (gardening) experts, plant more food and beautify the garden," Chan said. "But I really want us to serve as a model for other congregations. This has to be a community effort."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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Mark Foecking October 22, 2012 | 10:35 a.m.

I'm not minimizing the impact of these gardens, and think it's very good that they do this, but so much more food could be grown if low income (or any people) would simply put in a few raised beds and learn to garden. Other resources might be owners or landlords planting fruit trees - imagine how nice it would be to be able to pick a bowl of free apples or pears from right down the street.

Lawns are a poor use of land.


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