Building Community Health in Lisle
During the 2021 growing season, Lisle Township Community Garden harvested and donated 1,100 pounds of fresh produce to The Lisle Township Food Pantry.
Founded in 2012 by caring community members, the garden was planted to supplement the fresh produce offered at Lisle Township Food Pantry right next door. Community members accessing the pantry for grocery assistance wanted more produce, but it did not have enough to offer regularly.
“Fresh produce is the number one thing people want,” said Charles Biggins, food pantry director. “Customers are looking for plant-based diets to fight health issues.”
According to a groundbreaking study by United Way, more than one-third of households in DuPage County do not earn enough to afford their most basic needs, forcing them to make difficult decisions.
With such tight budgets, it can be difficult to afford higher-quality and specialty grocery items to help some people manage diet-related diseases or just maintain their preferred diets.
The fresh produce harvested at The Lisle Township Community Garden would add more variety and fresher options for the 500 families that Lisle Township Food Pantry serves monthly.
By 2017, though, the garden was overgrown and neglected. Chairwoman Paula Garcia decided to take over the garden herself.
The GardenWorks Project donated cedar planks, soil and compost for eight raised beds. After clearing out four-foot-tall weeds and rototilling the soil to prepare for planting, the garden was once again ready to start producing fresh produce for the Lisle community.
“The Lisle Community Garden was one of the first projects we supported when we launched our Community Garden Grant Program,” said Jeannie Iseman, executive director of GardenWorks. “They have had a direct impact on food access by increasing the amount of fresh produce available for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.”
Four years after this renewal, the garden harvests about 50 pounds of fresh produce three times a week for the Lisle Township Food Pantry.
“Food access is something everyone should have a right to,” said Garcia. “We want to make sure that our community has that.”
Combined with the donated food from local grocery stores, customers can fill their fridges and pantries and feel a little less stressed about their budgets for the month.
The items grown vary from year to year. The garden originally started growing kale and swiss chard, but when many people politely declined it, they cut back and started to grow more eggplants and sweet potatoes.
This collaboration with the community ensures that people have access to foods they are familiar with, especially if they did not grow up in the United States.
For many immigrants, finding fresh produce items that meet their cultural and religious needs can be difficult. Over the years, Garcia said, they have learned what people want.
“We had someone point out the sweet potato vines and tell us they are a delicacy in her home country,” Garcia said. “We don’t throw away the persling, either, because it can be used in dips and other recipes.”
Some of the other produce items that the garden grows include:
- Swiss chard
- Sugar snap peas
- White cucumbers
- Perennial strawberry patch
- Sweet potatoes
- Hot peppers
- Green and banana peppers
A group of 14 volunteers split into two shifts a day throughout the growing season to maintain it. They water, weed, check on and even talk to the plants. Over the years, as the garden yield has gone up, more people have wanted to give back.
The Lisle Service Corps awarded the garden a grant that helped pay for the fence. The local Eagle Scout Troop visited the garden in 2021 and installed that fence. The local Girl Scout Troop has also been a frequent visitor for various volunteering opportunities.
“The community has been very involved and very helpful,” said Garcia.
Ultimately, the garden has been a huge help for the pantry to help meet the customers’ fresh produce needs, especially during the pandemic. As inflation reaches 9.2% in DuPage County, and lower-income households stretch their resources even farther, the 2022 season will be mean just as much to the customers visiting Lisle Township.
“We provide people with stability,” Biggins said. “Food is important for people to thrive.”