South River community garden donates produce to food bank

SOUTH RIVER – Producing fresh vegetables from tomatoes to corn to pumpkins, the South River Community Garden is supporting the South River Food Bank.

“The garden was started to benefit the entire community, including those who may not have access to fresh produce. There are many people in town who suffer from food insecurity, and the garden provides a unique opportunity to serve the needy in meaningful, tangible ways,” said Denise Batista, who chairs the Friends of the South River Community Garden.

The Friends is a nonprofit organization that was created to support and enhance the project. The Friends helps to build partnerships with other organizations and community groups.

Regular fundraising events allow the Friends to expand the community garden, located on Causeway Street, and to offer onsite enrichment events like the “Story Time in the Garden” series, which was a six-week program for preschool pupils that wrapped up for the season on Aug. 15, according to Batista.

Batista said the community garden, which was established in May, produces tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, corn, zucchini, lettuce, kale, eggplant, sunflowers, basil, parsley, chives, dill, watermelon, pumpkin, okra and other items.

“Once the garden started yielding veggies … volunteers began harvesting and donating the produce to the food bank,” Batista said.

The food bank has two plots in the community garden. Funds for the plots and plants were provided by the Pillars Preparatory Academy. The food bank planted and maintains the two plots with the assistance of 11 high school students who take responsibility for watering, weeding and harvesting the food bank’s two plots, food bank supervisor Elizabeth Lukacs said.

“[South River High School Junior] Jaida Santiago has taken responsibility for organizing the volunteers and covering their shifts when they are away. We have two adult gardeners, Lenny Mecca and Mary Mecca, who provide garden expertise,” Lukacs said. “Our food bank plots are doing great and we have been able to distribute tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from these two plots to our food bank clients over the last month or so.”

The South River High School Rambotics Team has a plot at the community garden which provides produce for the food bank, and last week a group from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church brought the food bank produce from their plot as well, according to Lukacs.

“All that is harvested from the food bank plots will continue to go directly to food bank recipients. We will continue to encourage other gardeners to donate their surplus veggies,” Batista said. “Since the garden was started to serve the community, we intend to make our relationship with the food bank a mainstay of the garden program.”

As a nonprofit, Batista said the Friends rely on donations to keep the garden in operation, according to Batista.

“We are always in need of financial contributions which allow us to enhance the garden space and to provide enrichment programs for residents,” Batista said. “We also accept donations of new or gently used garden supplies, and we gladly welcome volunteers to assist with overall groundskeeping, in addition to helping us run garden-related events.”

The food bank recently moved to a new location at 98 Jackson St.

Lukacs said the food bank has been offering a summer lunch program which has provided bag lunches to families every Tuesday. The food bank’s school supply program has been expanded so it can provide backpacks and supplies to more children. The food bank also has a new “Connections” program that allows it to connect its clients to available resources.

“The community garden is an amazing addition to our community this year. Not only does it provide a beautiful space for residents to grow their own produce, it has fostered a sense of community as gardeners work side by side tending to their plots,” Lukacs said.

For more information about the community garden, visit www.southrivernj.org/communitygarden/ or its Facebook page

For more information about the food bank, visit www.southrivernj.org/foodbank/

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.