Under a blazing sun and blue sky, Joe McIntyre dug his shovel into the soft soil, turning it over and over to get it ready for planting. By mid-summer, the small lot in the 100 block of East Rittenhouse Street will yield its bounty – lettuce, spinach, peas, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables – all bound for a dinner table that feeds the hungry and the homeless in Germantown.
“I always try to do something to support charities,” said McIntryre, who joined other volunteers one recent Saturday morning in tilling the soil. Alongside him, were his two children, Joe, 16, and Mary Grace, 20.
Marked by a yellow forsythia bush and a picket fence with chipping paint, the vegetable-garden-in-the-making is a project of Face to Face, a social service program housed at nearby St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church.
Among other services, Face to Face provides free meals to hundreds of low-income Germantown residents, whom it calls “clients.” They fill the tables at the St. Vincent parish hall three days a week. While most of the food is donated, the garden helps relieve the dependence on donations and provides fresh produce in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a major supermarket.
“The garden…has been able to give the clients fresh, organically raised vegetables,” said Jennifer Hendricks, a graduate of Temple University’s School of Environmental Design, who helped start the garden five years ago and who now oversees it as caretaker and horticulturalist.
In addition to the vegetable garden, there is also an herb garden with parsley, cilantro, sage, thyme, rosemary, dill and fennel.
Hendricks takes pride in using organic farming methods. Leftovers from the Face to Face dining room, for example, are turned into compost for the garden. “We compost everything so that we can use the finished compost in the garden,” she said.
Even so, there are major challenges. One is water. There’s no water spigot on the lot. So Hendricks and her volunteer crews use barrels to collect rain water and also lug in a hose connected to a water spigot at St. Vincent’s across the street.
Another challenge is a razor-thin budget for garden supplies. For the past five years, for instance, seeds and plants have been donated by the Primex Garden Center in Glenside, where Hendricks used to work.
Finding steady volunteers
But the biggest challenge, Hendricks said, has been creating a solid volunteer force. Volunteers are often drawn from Catholic schools such as La Salle College High School, La Salle University and Villanova University. “But once school is out for the summer, these groups are less frequent and this is the most critical time for the garden,” Hendricks said.
To address the problem, Hendricks has been training a core group of volunteers whom she hopes will be able to weed, water and harvest the garden without supervision.
McIntyre is part of the core group. A member of Men of La Salle, a father’s group at La Salle College High School, he has been doing volunteer work at the garden for the past year. He had originally volunteered in the Face to Face kitchen, but shifted his focus after he learned the garden needed workers. “I wanted to do something more direct, a little more hands-on,” he said.
Others are also becoming regular volunteers.
Emily Plummer, a 2013 graduate of La Salle University, said she liked the “community feel” of the Face to Face dining program for low-income residents and wanted to help the program’s new cook have access to fresh vegetables. “It’s definitely not in-and-out like the soup kitchens I’ve been to in Center City where they treat people like a number,” she said.
Steve Szyszkiewicz, another recent college graduate, said he volunteered because he wanted to take advantage of the sunny weather and work outside. “Truthfully,” he said, “it’s nice out right now.”
Despite the challenge of maintaining the garden, Hendricks is optimistic about its future. She hope to expand the garden farther into the lot, set up a picnic table and develop a more efficient irrigation system that uses soaker hoses. “We’re going to keep on expanding so we can produce even more,” she said.
(Brendan Rigney, a 2016 graduate of La Salle University, contributed reporting.)