PARIS — It literally does take a village (several actually) to help Gardeners Growing Healthy Communities (GGHC) grow and share fresh produce with roughly 2,500 people in western Maine.
The Paris-based nonprofit is in its second year of existence and has gardens and distribution spots in Paris and Rumford. GGHC Past President and current board member Phoebe Call reported a healthy and productive season for 2017.
GGHC and its core volunteers served an average of 128 families each week for 2017. There were 1,196 people who visited the two distributions sites during the season and left with food for 2,487 family members. Volunteers distributed roughly 11,000 pounds at both sites in 2017.
She explained some of the people who participate in the distribution program aren’t always able to make it to either site, so others who can make that weekly trip bring fresh food to them.
“Some people don’t have cars or they’re always working or just cant get to the distributions,” she said. “People will come in and sign in and collect vegetables for multiple families. One woman helps us get ready at the [Paris] garden, helps at distribution and collects for five families.”
At Hosmer Field on Route 2 in Rumford, residents from 10 different towns attend the weekly food distribution, with the majority coming from Rumford and Mexico. People from 13 towns attend the event at the First Congregational Church of South Paris at 17 E. Main St., with most hailing from Paris and Norway. This includes those residing in neighboring counties, such as Harrison in Cumberland County and a couple of towns in Androscoggin County, according to Call, who maintains numbers for the nonprofit.
While Rumford’s numbers were similar to last year – 42 people attended weekly distribution events, serving 93 individuals – those at the Paris distribution site increased by 34 percent from 2016. In 2017, there were 86 people each week, which served an average of 173 individuals.
Call wasn’t sure why the Paris increase occurred, but noted there were 20 new people who signed up for the first distribution event in July. GGHC volunteers sent out postcards this year to past participants, which was more than 140 people, and advertised on their Facebook page. She surmised that word of mouth could have contributed to the increase.
“They come early and sit and chat with their friends, which is wonderful because it’s a social event on top of everything,” Call said. “Somehow the word has gotten out. … I just think it’s people talking. … Maybe it’s not only the need is staying the same, but it’s increasing.”
Garden Coordinator Barbara Murphy agreed.
“I think the increase at the South Paris site is due to word of mouth, poor wages and seniors feeling the pinch with fixed incomes,” she said.
This why organizers continue in trying to garner more volunteers and partnerships for GGHC. Murphy reported more people volunteering in 2017 versus 2016 when considering both sites. There are eight core volunteers at the Paris site and 11 in Rumford.
“Typically the majority of new volunteers are recruited through an eight-week gardening course that GGHC offers,” Murphy said. She added while there wasn’t enough interest to run the gardening course in Paris this year, there was in Bethel. “The Bethel [training] was successful and supplied new volunteers for both sites.”
“I think we have a pretty good core group now that think similarly about enjoying gardening and wanting to provide help to others,” Call added. “Most of the people who are volunteering are gardeners themselves. They like to share that effort with others.”
That is certainly the case for Call and Murphy. Call said she enjoys “being able to give back to the community and provide to those who otherwise might not have access to fresh vegetables.” Murphy has been in this line of work since 1999, noting it’s in her blood.
“I believe that everyone should be involved with something larger than themselves. Some people save whales or support art museums. … I believe everyone should have access to fresh produce,” she said. “I have met some of the kindest, best people in the area through this type of program and I can’t imagine not doing it.”
Some of GGHC’s partnerships over the past two years included:
- Cooper Farms in West Paris.
- Pietree Orchard in Sweden.
- Lowell Family Farm in Buckfield. Here Call and her husband collected more than 300 pounds of food for GGHC in 2017.
- Middle Intervale Farm in Bethel.
- Wild Fellowship Farm in Buckfield.
- Pine Root Farm in Steep Falls.
- Sue Day’s Farm in Bethel. Day not only overplants her own farm, she collects donations from neighboring farmers.
“Over the season, those donations totaled over 1,000 pounds,” Call said about Day’s efforts. “That’s just tremendous.”
GGHC is looking for more partnerships and volunteers. Information about the early spring 2018 eight-week gardening course will be posted on the nonprofit’s website at www.gardenersgrowinghealthycommunities.org/ and in local newspapers.
2017 highlights and beyond
At the weekly distribution events for Gardeners Growing Healthy Communities in Paris and Rumford, if there is not enough of an item to go around, a lottery is held to choose who will take home the extra goodies.This can include fresh produce, such as blueberries, or canned products, such as pickles and beets.
“That is kind of fun. Of course, the people are very disappointed when their number doesn’t come but that’s the way the lottery goes,” laughed GGHC board member Phoebe Call.
In addition to the cooking demonstrations held each week at the First Congregational Church of South Paris, there were two workshops held there in 2017, which served as fundraisers for the Paris and Rumford gardens.
“Reeser Manley came and talked about his new book on gardening for pollinators and Jock Roby … demonstrated how to build and maintain a worm bin,” said Garden Coordinator Barbara Murphy. “Both programs were well received.”
Thanks for a partnership with Bowdoin College – where incoming freshmen volunteer with GGHC – organizers knew of funds available through the Common Good grant from the college’s Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good. GGHC applied for a $2,200 grant and received it. This paid for two blueberry patches, landscape fabric and new irrigation systems in both gardens.
While the 2017 growing season didn’t see any new types of food grown, it did help determine the need for staple crops. These plants will be grown during 2018.
“Due to growing demand for our produce we have decided to focus on making sure we have a constant supply of our central crops, such as beets, carrots, greens, cucumbers, peppers, onions and the like,” Murphy said. “We will look for donations to round out our selection.”