The Rev. Luke Fodor bent over the mass of plants, grazed the tiny green tomatoes hidden behind the leaves and tied some of the stems to the bamboo sticks supporting the dense vegetation.
In about a month, these tomatoes will be ready.
But he won't be eating them.
All of the tomatoes, eggplants, onions, peppers and carrots in the garden at St. John's Church in Cold Spring Harbor will be donated to the Long Island chapter of Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit that distributes food weekly in Huntington, Farmingville, Hempstead, Coram and Brooklyn.
St. John's is one of about 10 religious institutions taking part in a program developed by the Huntington-based Long Island Community Agriculture Network. The congregations have started new gardens -- most on their properties -- with the harvests being donated to a nonprofit that helps feed the poor.
In what seems to be a growing trend, more people and institutions, such as churches, synagogues and schools, have been planting gardens -- to give back.
"It really is sprouting up all over," said Vivian Viloria-Fisher, a former Suffolk County legislator who while in office started the now-defunct Victory Garden Task Force, which taught people to create community gardens. She attributed the spike in community and charity gardens in part to first lady Michelle Obama's childhood obesity initiative, which has included planting a garden at the White House.
The national hunger relief organization, Feeding America, agrees with Viloria-Fisher. "Throughout the country, small farmers, community gardens and individuals are growing produce that they give to food banks to help meet the tremendous need for nutritious food," spokesman Ross Fraser said.
State and federal officials are also contributing, by allocating funds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to more low-income people this year.
Long Island Cares, which runs one of the two regional food banks, supplies about 580 local agencies, including food pantries and emergency shelters.
Paule Pachter, its executive director, said the organization recently received $105,000 from the state program "Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables," which also receives federal money. Pachter said the money will be used to hire another nutritionist to educate clients about the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them.
The group also received a $10,000 state grant, which will help buy more fresh fruits and vegetables for seniors. "It is going to allow us to reach out to the people who actually need the food," Pachter said.
Long Island Cares and Island Harvest, another local hunger relief organization, provide emergency hunger relief services to about 284,000 low-income people annually on Long Island, according to a 2010 study by Feeding America. This represents an increase of 21 percent in unduplicated annual clients since the last report in 2006.
With high unemployment and the stagnant economy, people have relied on these organizations and others, such as Food Not Bombs.
On a recent rainy night, about a dozen volunteers came to East Sixth Street and Fairground Avenue in Huntington Station -- the usual site for Food Not Bombs' weekly distribution of goods.
Just before 7 that night, people started to line the streets, many carrying reusable grocery bags. When Food Not Bombs volunteer Jon Stepanian arrived, he and others unloaded about a dozen tables and started filling them with boxes of food -- including fresh fruits and vegetables -- and clothes.
Carol Hazelgine of Lindenhurst came out with her daughter and granddaughter. She said they try to come out at least once a week. She filled her bags with produce and other food items.
"It is nice to be able to eat good food," Hazelgine said, especially the fruits and vegetables. She said she was laid off about two months ago and can't afford these items.
Derek Anthony, 43, lives nearby. He said he comes for the fruit and greens. "It is hard right now," Anthony said. "This definitely helps."
Ten religious institutions have committed to donating to food banks vegetables and fruit they grow at new gardens, most on their properties:
- Dix Hills United Methodist Church
Source: Long Island Community Agriculture Network