Westside CARES’ garden plots treat needy to fresh food

       When people are asked to give food to charities, the term “non-perishable” is typically part of the request.

Debra Mitguard (left) and Grace True pick carrots from Westside CARES' two raised beds (behind and in front of them) at the Westside Community Center garden. The produce became available for that day's CARES' pantry offerings.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Debra Mitguard believes it doesn't have to be that way.
       The community resources coordinator for Westside CARES has been heading up a program this summer by the non-profit charitable agency that makes fresh produce available to its indigent clients.
       How fresh? At noon on Wednesdays, Mitguard and her volunteer gardening team harvest ripe vegetables from the Westside CARES garden plots outside the Westside Community Center. At 12:30 p.m., the doors open to the CARES emergency free food pantry inside the center.
       “You can't get much fresher than that,” Mitguard said.
       Since June, about 100 families coming to the Westside CARES pantry have received such edibles. The only big drawback she's seen is that the effort is falling short of the initial goal to have a garden bounty for all six CARES pantries. “This barely scratches the surface,” she said. “We're going to be doing some brainstorming for next year.”
       Mitguard is an avid gardener herself, taking classes in recent years from Larry Stebbins - leader of the Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (PPUG) - and tending a home garden now that “takes up my whole backyard.”
       When she heard last fall about PPUG coordinating with the Westside Center to create a community garden with 74 raised beds, she approached CARES executive director Steve Brown about involving the agency. He was OK with that, but because it was new there was uncertainty about how many beds to take on and a concern about overextending Mitguard, whoses duties also include volunteer coordination, marketing and public relations.
       “It was kind of a big experiment,” she said. The decision was made to rent two beds and “see how much we could raise.”
       Renting more beds next year might not be possible. The 74 Westside plots all rented well before spring planting, plus there's a waiting list.
       The best option might be to “look at what makes sense to plant,” Mitguard said. For instance, the squash that was planted this summer “takes up a lot of space,” and such produce is not necessarily hard to come by. “If we did a call to the community for donations of squash, they'd come pouring in,” she chuckled.
       In any case, volunteer help does not appear to be a problem. In addition to Mitguard's eight-member team, several CARES clients have offered to “give back” by helping with the garden, she said.
       Through June and July, spinach and lettuce were the plants handed out most in the pantry. Now the carrots are starting to come. Still, the peas are sparse and the larger tomatoes, while plentiful, are still green on their vines. “They've been slow this year,” Mitguard said.

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