The GardenWorks Project's newest garden at Downers Grove FISH Pantry improves access to fresh produce by supplementing what the volunteers rescue from local grocery stores and order from Northern Illinois Food Bank.
By Rachel Huser
The hazy sun shines down on an empty parking lot outside FISH Pantry in Downers Grove at 8 a.m. on Friday morning. The side door is ajar for volunteers to enter the pantry when they arrive for their three-hour shift.
Amanda Byrant, program manager for The GardenWorks Project, walks around to the back of the building to tend to 10 raised beds that make up the community garden. Onions, eggplants, swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchinis and mustard greens burst from the soil, ready to be harvested or very close to it. The abundance of rainfall has dampened them, and the early rays of sunshine reflect off the happy plants.
Once they arrive, volunteers place pineapple, cookbooks and coffee on a table outside. As the parking lot fills around 8:30, they offer warm smiles and menus for families to select what food items they would like for the week. Around 9 a.m., volunteers appear from the back of the building with bundles of freshly harvested swiss chard and mustard greens.
The GardenWorks Project partnered with Downers Grove Township, FISH Pantry, The Grove Foundation and Downers Grove Junior Woman’s Club to establish this new community garden in May 2021 to supplement FISH’s fresh produce offerings.
“Fresh produce is a popular item,” said Deb Aguzino, a co-director of FISH. “Every single person wants fresh fruit and veggies.” Often, it’s the first thing to run out.
The garden provides fresher produce than what FISH receives from Jewel-Osco, their biggest donor. The produce that comes straight from the garden lasts longer than produce bought from a grocery store, which means people accessing the pantry can use fresh produce all week. They do not need to rush to use the produce from the grocery stores. The garden also allows volunteers to better respond to produce preferences and any special diets. FISH serves a large East Asian population, and the swiss chard is a hot commodity.
“A critical pillar of GardenWorks’ programming is increasing the supply of fresh produce available in food pantries,” said Jeannie Iseman, executive director of The GardenWorks Project. “We encourage folks to donate their extra harvests to local food pantries and work with community groups like Downers Grove Township and FISH to establish gardens that supplement their fresh produce options.”
FISH Pantry has been serving the Downers Grove community since 1969. A dedicated crew of volunteers provide a clothes closet, food pantry, local transportation and financial assistance.
One of those volunteers is Tammi Kwasegroch.
Kwasegroch has a large curiosity, which has led to a full life. Before she retired in January 2021, she had a career in radiation therapy, raised three children, dabbled in promotional marketing, and was a certified diamontologist. She has also fully recovered from several severe injuries from an accident.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” she said.
Kwasegroch has lived in Downers Grove for a little over a year, and gets around town by taking public transportation or walking. She walks several miles every day. Kwasegroch found out about the gardens when she was out for her daily walk. She saw how beautiful they were and became curious, so she asked about how to get involved.
“Volunteering is a positive and uplifting experience,” Kwasegroch said. “I wanted to give back.”
She started volunteering in late April of 2021 watering the beds. Every Monday she comes to water the gardens with a group of four other ladies from her independent senior living home.
“The gardens were a godsend,” she said.
Kwasegroch has never had a garden herself. Her community offers very little green space, but since starting to volunteer, she has received some tips from the more seasoned gardeners. She recently bought a pair of gardening gloves and has been able to keep a few plants alive in her home.
She loves coming to the pantry. She particularly loves the organization, the quality and the people. Kwasegroch hopes to continue to volunteer at FISH and hopefully more places in the future.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re going to a pantry,” she said. “It feels like you’re going to say hi to friends. Volunteers become like family to you.”
Every Tuesday and Friday, six to eight volunteers hand out trilingual menus written in English, Spanish and Mandarin for every item that FISH has to offer that day. A translator supports visiting families that prefer Mandarin. Shoppers can select up to 15 items. Once they are finished, volunteers give a numbered card in exchange for the finished menus. They can either hold their card or place it on their car while they wait for their groceries.
On this Friday, though, a buzz of activity surrounds the produce tables where the garden harvest rests. Shoppers smile. They laugh and hug. People from all walks of life enjoy the warm sunshine and the cool breeze as they relish the opportunity to gather in person and connect over food.
Within a few seconds, the produce is gone.
Conversations turn to recipes. People share what they like to make with the freshly harvested produce, especially the chard.
The community garden has indeed created a community within a community, one focused on celebrating the harvest and fullness of summer.
This garden is just one of 19 that The GardenWorks Project has supported and sustained since 2017. To learn more about community gardening and celebrate the movement, join us for our Community Garden Gathering on July 24 at 3 p.m. at Lisle Township Gardens.