Let It Grow

Graduate students volunteer at local garden to support food banks

Article appeared on Nov. 17, 2009 in the Stanford Daily
Download PDF

Like many Americans taking part in food drives this month, 13 Stanford graduate students set out to support local peninsula food banks. But they had more than ramen noodles and canned corn in mind. Instead, they helped provide underprivileged residents with something they don’t often get–fresh, organic produce.

On Saturday, Nov. 7, the students volunteered to harvest 51 pounds of peppers, Swiss chard and tomatoes grown at the Almost Eden volunteer-run garden in Palo Alto.

Garden Co-Manager Shellie Sanchez then drove the vegetables straight to St. Anthony’s, a soup kitchen in Menlo Park that serves 600 hot meals per week. It is one of four Palo Alto area food banks Almost Eden provides with organic produce.

“Going to the food banks is the best part,” Sanchez said. “Families see the fresh food as we bring it in, and they start grabbing each other’s arms and pointing. They’re pretty excited about what we grew. It’s not the kind of stuff [food banks] usually get donated.”

When Almost Eden staff asked Kate Church, director of the Palo Alto Food Closet, whether they could donate their produce, her response was, “Can we give you a hug?”

The Food Closet offers needy families and seniors food baskets that they can take home and prepare for themselves. Church estimates they serve 55 families each week, up 35 percent from this time last year.

“Sometimes a few people donate fruit from their backyard fruit trees, but we never get very much in the way of vegetables,” Church said. “Almost Eden [volunteers] are very nice people, and their work is very important to us.”

Joanna Lankester, a fourth year graduate student in electrical engineering, organized the volunteer outing at Almost Eden for fellow residents of the Rains housing complex and other grad students.

“I was looking for an opportunity that would let students volunteer together,” she said. “I stumbled upon this garden last year, and the event was a big hit. It’s amazing that [Almost Eden] serves such a need in the community depending entirely on volunteers.”

Founded in 1998, Almost Eden didn’t always rely completely on donations of time and money. It began with grant funding from Palo Alto’s Urban Ministries and hired homeless and low-income employees to maintain the garden and deliver the produce to food banks.

Budget constraints forced Urban Ministries to cut funding a few years after the program began, turning Almost Eden into a true labor of love. The Central Coast Baptist Association was still willing to donate the land for Almost Eden, but garden managers suddenly had to find creative ways to maintain the garden without paid staff or supplies.

“This year, we started leasing one-third of the garden plots to community members who wanted their own gardens,” said Co-Manager Pam Chesavage ‘92. “Combined with donations, it’s enough to buy seedlings, tools and supplies and pay our water bill each month. Plus, it gives the community some pride in the garden.”

Chesavage started co-managing Almost Eden in 2003, shortly after she got married and moved into the garden’s neighborhood. She was interested in helping for many of the same reasons today’s Stanford graduate students are.

“I was a Stanford student and needed something to do other than homework,” she said. “I used to garden with my dad and always lived in houses where I started gardens. I studied human biology with a focus on community environmental health. This seemed like a natural fit. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning.”

Today, Chesavage admits, she spends a lot more time at the garden than merely Saturday mornings. During peak gardening times–the fall and spring–the mother of four is there up to 20 hours per week, organizing volunteers and coordinating planting, harvesting and composting.

“It’s like small-scale farming,” she said. “We grow and donate about 2,000 pounds of produce per year.”

Ashish Goel, a first year graduate student working on his master’s in aeronautics and astronautics, was one of the grad students who donated a portion of his weekend to Almost Eden. A first-time volunteer, he helped plant beds of broccoli and collard greens and prepared out-of-season plants for composting.

“I’m a vegetarian, and I appreciated the idea of growing vegetables,” Goel said. “I remember, when I was little, there used to be guava and tamarind trees at my elementary school. We used to throw sticks at the trees to get the fruit to fall off.”

Goel added that he frequents the Palo Alto farmers markets for his vegetables today and was happy to volunteer to help others who can’t afford the same fresh produce, especially produce that’s been harvested the same day.

“Whenever you pluck stuff right off the trees, it always tastes better,” he said.