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Community Garden Provides Fertile Ground for Education and Charity

By Denis Grasska

LA MESA — “By their fruits you will know them” (Matt 7:20) — or, in the case of the community garden at St. Martin of Tours Parish, their vegetables.

Since last year, the garden has provided unique learning opportunities to students at St. Martin of Tours Academy, while also yielding fresh produce for cash-strapped La Mesa residents supported by the parish’s food assistance program.

Most of the gardening is done by the students themselves during the school day, under the supervision of their teachers.

“On any given day, there is usually a class of students working out in the garden,” said first grade teacher Marie Glick, explaining that first-graders often plant the seeds, third-graders pull weeds, fifth-graders harvest ripe vegetables, and kindergarteners deliver the produce to the food pantry.

Glick said St. Martin’s garden has opened students’ minds to scientific principles and their hearts to Christian charity.

“The garden ties in beautifully with our curriculum,” she said. “Our science units that focus on plants go hand in hand with the garden. I feel the children are learning so much more, since they are actually gardening, as opposed to simply reading about it.”

But, she added, the garden also has provided opportunities for students to reflect on and discuss aspects of Catholic social teaching, including environmental stewardship as well as outreach to the poor.

Vegetables from the garden are picked, washed, packaged and labeled by students before delivery to the food pantry. In total, more than 130 bags of produce, including spinach, arugula, Swiss chards, onions, carrots, radishes and zucchini, have been distributed to the approximately 90 families who receive two days’ worth of food from the parish every month.

Glick quoted one of her first-grade students, who said, “We grow food for the poor people, so they don’t always have to eat food from cans.”

The community garden occupies a one-quarter-acre patch of land, formerly vacant and overgrown with weeds, at the northeastern corner of the parish campus. Benches beneath a large pine tree provide a place for students to sit as they learn science lessons or practical gardening tips.

Third grade teacher Diane Hartley, whose students water the garden twice a week during their science class and also pull weeds and harvest vegetables when required, described the garden as “a longtime dream” of parishioners.

In February 2016, the parish received a $2,500 CRS (Catholic Relief Services) Rice Bowl Grant, which it used to purchase the materials necessary to construct 10 raised vegetable beds, to install an irrigation system, and to acquire seeds, tools and more. CRS Rice Bowl grants are funded through the Rice Bowl program (www.crsricebowl.org), through which children and families learn about the needs of people throughout the world and have an opportunity, through Lenten almsgiving, to contribute toward providing assistance.

The school also received a grant from the California Fertilizer Foundation, which covered the cost of quality planting soil.

Richard Zasueta, who has coordinated the parish’s food assistance program for almost two years, oversaw the establishment of the community garden. Since then, he has seen how it has brightened the lives of hungry individuals and families.

“It’s just so gratifying when you offer somebody fresh vegetables,” he said, “and you just see the gratefulness in their face.”

Hartley has witnessed similar joy in the faces of the students.

“The children love seeing the garden grow and produce food that can be shared with the parish food bank,” she said. “Their excitement and amazement is evident from the smiles on their faces, especially when we bring the bags of produce to the pantry.”

For more information about CRS Rice Bowl or applying for a grant, contact Maria Valencia at (858) 490-8323 or mvalencia@sdcatholic.org.

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