JACKSONVILLE — A man stood at the edge of a garden near Kitty Stone Elementary School in early June and plunged the blade of a hoe into the soil, chopping weeds from around the roots of tomato plants, the fruits of which he may never taste.
Wooden signs designed by elementary school classes spell out what’s been planted. They include “Mrs. Bean, 3rd grade, spinach,” and “veggies, 3rd grade, Mrs. Wilson,” all written in brightly colored script that appears to have been painted by a child’s hand.
Near the rows of plants designated with student markers is another row of corn, its stalks about 7 feet tall, planted by volunteers from Jacksonville State University. Parallel to the corn are rows of watermelon, squash and okra, the deep green leaves of which are sprawling out over exposed soil.
The garden is being prepared, planted and tended to by volunteers, including elementary school students, university professors, churchgoers and master gardeners. The harvest will be used to supply the Jacksonville Christian Outreach Center with fresh vegetables for some of the neediest people in the city.
“It all has to do with being able to serve others,” said Mike Limerick, who is heading up the local volunteer effort.
A spokesman with Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization, said organizers with that program have placed an increased emphasis on providing fresh food to people who need it. This year, Ross Fraser said, Feeding America will give 4 billion pounds of food away. One billion of that will be fresh food.
He said the organization is sometimes called on to collect large amounts of fresh produce, which has cosmetic flaws but is still good to eat. The challenge, he said, is in collecting food items, packaging them and delivering them before they spoil. Feeding America bought refrigerated trucks to get the job done, Fraser said.
Local volunteers are encountering some of the same logistical challenges with the Jacksonville garden. Organizers expect to have four times as much produce as the outreach center needs and there are too few volunteers to harvest the crops.
“Our greatest problem right now is harvesting this stuff and getting it where it needs to go,” Limerick said a week ago.
Last fall Kitty Stone students planted the first rows of crops, winter vegetables. The first yield, mostly greens, turnips, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, was used to supply the outreach center during the winter.
There was more produce than there were people who wanted it, organizers said. Then, in the spring, students planted summer vegetables and JSU professors Joseph Akpan and Larry Beard nearly doubled the size of the garden when they initiated a community service project for faculty and students.
“It looks to me like we’re going to have a lot more bounty than I thought we would have,” said volunteer Dick Pritchett, who is also a master gardener.
So much produce is expected that organizers said they are trying to find benevolent organizations outside Jacksonville who could benefit from having fresh fruits and vegetables to hand out.
That’s something at least one area organization, Community Enabler Developer, could stand to have more of, said director Maudine Holloway.
“It always kind of makes me feel good if I can give you some fresh vegetables that just came out of the garden,” Holloway said. “We very seldom get any.”