Community Garden feeds those in need

Dawn Medici (right), recreation specialist for Oxford Parks and Rec., weighs fresh-picked yellow squash from the community garden with volunteers Kip Kriigel and Selena Koro. Photos by J. Hanlon

By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Volunteers are starting to pull ripe vegetables from the new community garden at Seymour Lake Twp. Park. The majority of the produce is going directly to those who need it most, to supplement the weekly Free Meals program at Immanuel Congregational United Church of Christ at 1. Hovey St. in Oxford Village.

Barbara Kriigel carefully trims fresh oregano, overcrowded by tomato vines, from an herb trough.

The 10,000-square-foot garden behind the park maintenance shed off Coats Rd. was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Almont-based Four County Community Foundation (4CCF) and donations from local businesses Harvest Time Farm Market and Pet Stuff, Stones Ace Hardware, Tractor Supply Co. and The Home Depot.
Volunteers planted the garden in May, and have been watering, weeding and maintaining it ever since. “We’re learning a lot for next year,” said Dawn Medici, Travel & Senior Coordinator for Oxford Parks and Rec., who noted plans to expand the garden. “Some plants were put too close together because so many extra were donated.”
This abundance was demonstrated last Wednesday, July 28, when 34 pounds of yellow squash, 11 pounds of zucchini, 12 pounds of peppers and 14 pounds of cucumbers were harvested. These fresh veggies were handed out at the Free Meals program at Immanuel Congregational UCC that evening.
“It’s been a good experience, we’ve been able to pass out pounds upon pounds of food from the community garden, which has been good to see,” said Evan Karr, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and summer associate with the 4CCF.
From June through mid-August, Karr is working with the community garden, the meals program and several nonprofits in Lapeer. “It’s been nice to be able to see things through, working with the community garden and being the one distributing [the vegetables] at the meals program.”
The meals program offers a free cooked meal and groceries to anyone in need, no questions asked, every Wednesday from 5 to 6 p.m. Relying on volunteers and donations from the community, the program has kept folks fed through economic difficulties caused by the pandemic. It relocated to Immanuel Congregational from Oxford United Methodist Church in February.
Right now they serve a little over 100 people a week. During the worst of the crisis a year ago, they served up to 250 in a week, with lines backed up around the block, and ran out of food regularly.
“A very conservative estimate, we’ve served over 9,000 meals between the middle of March last year and July first of this year,” said Connie Miller, who runs the program. “That’s just the meals, it doesn’t account for anything else.”
On groceries, they spend $300 to $400 a week on non-perishables and about $200 more for milk, bread and eggs. So, the fresh produce means a lot. “The first stuff to come in was lettuce and people were just thrilled. And I can’t wait, next week we should have a lot of red tomatoes.”
Last summer, some people donated excess vegetables from their gardens. One woman cried when Miller gave her a fresh tomato. “I haven’t had a fresh tomato in so long,” Miller remembered her saying.
The need is still high, and the program subsists basically week-to-week. Miller is especially concerned because the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is set to expire Sept. 4.

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Evan Karr carries a bag full of fresh community garden vegetables to a family experiencing food insecurity.

“The thing I’m running into, and I understand it, is people are saying ‘I’m tired of giving. I’ve given enough. Tell these people to get a job, go back to work.’ Well, it’s just not that easy. We’ve got people, one family in particular, a husband and wife both work with four kids. They both lost their jobs last March. He finally found another job at half the pay, and she can’t go back to work because she has nobody to watch the kids and they can’t afford daycare. So, that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with. Are some people taking advantage? Sure. But, the vast majority are people just like that.”
Even now, some folks are seeking assistance for the very first time. And it all comes back around. “You know, some of these people used to donate to us and volunteer with us,” Miller said.
Donation boxes for nonperishable food are located at Oxford Township Hall (300 Dunlap Rd.), Oxford Village Office (22 W. Burdick St.), and the OCTV studio next to the Parks and Rec. department and Senior Center at Seymour Lake Park (2795 Seymour Lake Rd.). Anyone looking to volunteer or make financial contributions can call Connie at 248-933-4579.
“We’ll stay out here until we’re no longer needed,” Miller said.
Those needing food assistance can follow signs to line up behind the church beginning at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, in the western driveway off Dennison St. Folks should remain in their vehicles while volunteers deliver the food. Meals and groceries are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
Some produce from the community garden also goes to cooking classes for residents 55 and older at the Oxford Senior Center. Folks can volunteer for time slots to help harvest and maintain the community garden at signupgenius.com/go/10c0c44acac2babf5c52-weeding.

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