Rhonda Woolsey has a new project this year, and it’s providing plenty of produce to go around.
Woolsey, the coordinator of the Shangri-La Garden, part of the Community Garden Coalition, started a new garden that’s yielding a bounty of fresh food for the 18 families who help till the soil — and an untold number of others.
About one-third of the vegetables and fruit grown in the Shangri-La Garden at 201 West Ash St. is given away, Woolsey said.
It’s part of an overall effort by the coalition to share produce from its 13 gardens with food pantries and needy individuals. The coalition’s Given Garden on South Range Line Road just east of Columbia is solely dedicated to growing produce for the needy, and Woolsey estimates that garden alone provided 6,000 pounds of produce last year. Cabbage, sweet potatoes and bell peppers are the crops that will be harvested from Given Garden this summer.
Woolsey’s interest in the intersection of food and health grew after being diagnosed with breast cancer this February.
“I didn’t feel well before, and I wanted to eat healthy,” she said. “I did it for selfish reasons (at the beginning). But after being diagnosed with cancer, the reasons changed.”
For Woolsey, donating food brings a different sort of reward.
“I get a lot of spiritual satisfaction out of it,” she said.
On Monday evening, Woolsey filled a basket with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and other vegetables from the Shangri-La Garden and delivered it to William Lewis, 87, who lives a couple blocks away.
“Oh, boy, am I gonna have fun tonight,” Lewis said.
Weijie Fent, 41, also works in the Shangri-la Garden. He grew up in Shanghai, China, and had never done any gardening before. The experience gives him pleasure, as did the knowledge that he was helping others, he said.
Sean Ross of the Central Missouri Food Bank Pantry said his agency receives thousands of pounds of fresh produce annually and gives it to the needy. Some clients eat so little fresh food they don’t even recognize some of the donated vegetables, he said.
In addition to the Community Garden Coalition, sources of the pantry’s produce include a group of master gardeners and the Columbia Farmers Market.
During the peak of the growing season, donations total about 500 pounds of produce a week, Ross said. On July 1, the pantry distributed about 300 to 400 pounds of squash — enough for people to take as much as they wanted.
The Salvation Army shelter on Ann Street is one agency that wishes more growers would keep them in mind. The homeless shelter served 21,125 meals last year, development director Cyndy Chapman said.
Chapman said the homeless shelter appreciates the generosity of the donors who bring produce.