Food pantry garden growing more than tomatoes

Denise Crosby
Aug. 18 9 a.m.

A way to help

With an expanded facility and services, the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry is in need of more funding. To help with increasing expenses that not only include the community garden but also added refrigeration, a fundraiser, “Fill The Bowls,” is scheduled for Sept 21 at the Prisco Center from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in conjunction with its annual Spirit Awards.

On hand will be a large number of restaurants providing sampling of soups, chilis, stews and other offerings. Executive Director Diane Renner said the food pantry is currently seeking more sponsors. For more information, call 630-897-5431.

Mother Marie would be so proud.

Marie Wilkinson, who became known as Aurora’s matriarch for her decades of crusading for our community’s most vulnerable, must surely be looking down from her venerated spot in heaven and smiling.

Across Highland Avenue from the food pantry that bears her name, beautiful red tomatoes grow fat and juicy on their vines, shiny green cucumbers glisten in the late morning sun and tall proud sunflowers shoot toward the sky.

Once upon a time — earlier this year, in fact — nothing but grass, weeds and a few trees were growing on these three empty city lots. But Alderman Mike Saville had for some time wanted to turn that patch of unused land into a garden that would not only benefit the neighborhood but also the clients of the food pantry.

Diane Renner, executive director of the pantry, however, knew the staff was too busy streamlining and expanding the food distribution operation to devote time to a garden.

“This year we had no excuses,” said Renner with a wide smile as she stood in the middle of “Marie’s Community Garden Park,” a basket of ripened tomatoes in hand.

A grant from the city of Aurora helped turn that dream into reality, as well as the assistance of Matthew Cargill and his team of Rebuilding Together Aurora.

The RTA group, she said, planned out the garden to incorporate flower beds, fruit trees and about 68 plots in two different sizes, in addition to some raised beds for the handicapped and elderly, eliminating a need for bending.

The goal, said Renner, is to provide garden opportunities to families, as well as teach our youth the benefits of growing their own food.

Among those young people were four teens working with Quad County Urban League, who spent part of Friday morning filling jugs of water (the water is supplied by the Aurora Fire Department) and hauling them to the rows of cantaloupe and watermelon they were patiently nurturing.

Two of the students, 16-year-old Dianca Villa and 17-year-old Xavier Thomas, had never grown anything in their lives.

“The process is amazing,” said Villa. “You put in the work and you see the results.”

And the people you work with, she added, “become like family.”

There are a number of gardens dedicated to other groups in town. The food pantry, said Renner, charges between $15 and $25 a plot, but that fee is returned at the end of the growing season.

“We just want to make sure they use it,” she added.

About half the garden is tended by pantry volunteers. The other plots belong to groups or individuals who give most of what they grow back to the pantry.

“I believe it encompasses such issues as local food, organic food, food security and social justice,” said long-time community activist Mavis Bates. “All that from a little plot of earth.”

The hope, said Renner, is to expand the garden plots, build a large compost corner and colorful artwork to enhance the garden and neighborhood.

The benefits are many, she points out: more fresh produce for pantry patrons, as well as involvement from the neighborhood and community in general.

If you are interested in donating or getting more involved with Marie’s Community Garden Spot, call 630-897-5431. You’ll not only get a chance to produce your own food, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of something else that is growing so beautifully.

A caring community.