Food bank ready to dig

06/16/2014 1:29 PM

06/16/2014 1:30 PM

An acre of waist-high weeds behind the Harvesting International Mission Center food bank might soon become a new source of nutrition for struggling families.

The Rotary Club of Mansfield is spearheading a project to convert the field into a community garden, where volunteers could start digging in by late summer or early fall.

They will be invited to stake claims on small plots for planting and raisingvegetables, said Gregory Dewbrew, president of Harvesting International food bank, which moved into its 15,000-square-foot warehouse at West Broad Street and South Sixth Street in October. When harvest time comes, the gardeners would keep half of their crop and donate the rest to the food bank

Although Dewbrew has wanted a community garden for years, the idea didn’t get traction until he had a planning meeting with the Rotarians last month.

“Basically, we left it as, ‘Y’all tell us what you want and we’ll do it,’” said Russ Wilson, one of 40 members of the noon Rotarians. “We have committed to provide Harvesting International both sweat equity and financial assistance to build the project.”

Debra Warden, a volunteer with the food bank, is itching to get her hands in the dirt.

“My mother and I a few years ago had a garden,” said the Fort Worth resident. “We had corn and greens and all kinds of squash. You name it, we had it.”

Now, though, she lives in a mobile home park where there is no room to garden.

Warden said that in addition to producing vegetables, the community garden would provide more volunteer opportunities at the food bank.

“We always have people wanting to volunteer, but sometimes we have more volunteers than we need,” Warden said. “But with this garden, will have plenty of places to put them.”

Dewbrew said he has about 30 volunteers in the food bank, which he founded in 1999 in the Mansfield industrial park in southwest Mansfield. The food bank provides groceries directly to 300-500 families a month as well as to 40 or 50 food pantries in North Texas, he said.

But Dewbrew spent the past two years trying to find a new home for the food bank after his lease expired. Finally, Dewbrew got a break -- from Mansfield Cares, a nonprofit that supports numerous charities.

Mansfield Cares had already established a foothold at the West Broad intersection in 2009, when it opened the Nix Family Caring Place Clinic.

Then the group mounted a two-year fund-raising and construction campaign to erect the food bank next door to the clinic.

The community garden would occupy the remainder of that five-acre project.

Volunteers would water, weed and take care of their plots as they would their own gardens. But in the true community spirit, they also would be expected to pull a few weeds or water the crops in a neighbor’s plot, or harvest another’s tomatoes before they overripen, Wilson said.

“I know,” he added. “Kind of hippie stuff.”

The potential yield will be a small contribution to the overall food bank operation, which doles out between 4 million and 5 million pounds of food a year.

“Will it put a dent?” Dewbrew asked, repeating the question. “It will enhance.”

In the community garden, quality will trump quantity, he said. Whatever the yield, it will be the freshest food that he will dole out.

The food bank does receive tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce -- including 2,000 pounds of cucumbers just last week – but most of that is short-life castoffs from grocery stores.

“This will give us produce that will have a longer shelf life,” Dewbrew said. “It will help us feed more people and give them more fresh choices.”

As for the Rotarians, Wilson said, building a community garden fits perfectly with the international Rotary’s pledge of service, that its member clubs take on local charitable projects in addition to the national and international efforts they also support.

Two other community gardens are operating at the Community of Hope and Living Word churches in Mansfield, projects that have sparked the Rotary members to rally behind the concept, Wilson said.

“The idea,” he said, “is that once we get through with this one, we start another.”

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