Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh started a garden when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and uses the fruits of volunteers' labor to help local food pantries and soup kitchens. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Fruits and vegetables that were once scarce in food pantries and soup kitchens are now making their way into the hands of families in need across Long Island through a network of community gardens.

Often referred to as “giving gardens,” these beds of produce are set up at community organizations, places of worship and even businesses and yield tens of thousands of pounds of produce every year ranging from beets to zucchinis.

Community and home gardens have been on the rise the past few years, said Cassidy Kirch, farm and gardens coordinator for Island Harvest, a nonprofit based in Melville that runs a program to help groups set up giving gardens.

“When COVID started, everybody panicked and we got a real up-close glimpse of how vulnerable our food system really is to disruption,” she said.

One of those groups offering up their harvest is Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, where an unused playground was turned into a giving garden that organizers said last year yielded more than 1,000 pounds of donated produce.

Rona Kauffman harvests okra at Temple B’nai Torah’s community garden...

Rona Kauffman harvests okra at Temple B’nai Torah’s community garden in Wantagh, where an unused playground was turned into a giving garden. “We love giving them the fresh produce because that’s the hardest thing for people who need this kind of help with food to get,” Kauffman said of the donations to Island Harvest and Community Solidarity. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

“We love giving them the fresh produce because that’s the hardest thing for people who need this kind of help with food to get,” said Rona Kauffman, 67, who coordinates the effort of volunteers.  

Leaders at Telephonics Corp. purchased five beds last year for a giving garden on its Huntington property, with employee Pedro Yepes leading two dozen of his colleagues in tending to the 100 pounds of produce harvested. The company this year added five more beds to grow vegetables such as cabbage, cucumbers and spinach, which are donated to the Long Island Cares food pantry in Huntington Station.

Yepes, 65, said the effort is personal to him after having grown up in poverty in Colombia.

“I know what it is to be hungry,” he said. “So when I give food to someone, there’s a happiness in my heart.”

Telephonics Corporation employees and brothers Kayjon, left, and Keshawn La-Rode with vegetables...

Telephonics Corporation employees and brothers Kayjon, left, and Keshawn La-Rode with vegetables recently picked from the Huntington company’s community garden that will be donated to Long Island Cares. Credit: James Escher

Donating is also personal for Ann Pellegrino, 54, who helps run Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach, which has 11 acres of gardens and farmland. Pellegrino said she was once a working single mother who would find only nonperishable foods at pantries.  

“It filled your belly but didn’t really have any nutritional value,” she said. “I wanted to give back something that had vitamins and nutrients in it.”

About 90% of what is grown is donated to food pantries and soup kitchens. The other 10% is sold at a farmstand to help sustain the farm, Pellegrino said. Last year the farm donated more than 50,000 pounds of produce, she said.

“People go crazy over it,” said Don O’Connor, 72 who picks up donations from the farm for the pantry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lake Ronkonkoma. “When you give out canned carrots it doesn’t have quite the same meaning as when you have the fresh ones there.”

At the Mary Brennan INN soup kitchen in Hempstead, produce donations are given out and also used to cook the nearly 900 meals they serve daily.

“To cook fresh food and to serve it is an honor, because it took time and dedication and lots of planning just to get that one tomato or string bean,” said Jean C. Victor Jr., the kitchen’s manager.

PRODUCE IN AMERICA

People dealing with food insecurity: 42 million

Amount of gardeners: 61 million

Amount of annual garden produce that becomes waste: 11.5 billion pounds

SOURCE: AmpleHarvest.org, a national nonprofit that aims to connect gardeners with extra produce to local food pantries

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