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Food pantry flourishes in first year

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Summer fruits and vegetables were in abundance on densely leafed vines as Sue Bussa took a hot morning walk through Lockhart’s community garden.

With summer harvest looming, Bussa, who manages the garden that helps keep the Caldwell County Christian Ministries Food Pantry in fresh produce, couldn’t help but look ahead to what happens next.

“I expect this will all die by August,” said Bussa, who describes herself as a backyard gardener. “We will plant broccoli, and kale and collards and all of the stuff that does dynamite in the fall in September.”

But with that self-assigned backyard gardener label, Bussa’s clearly understating her own abilities.

Just a year after Meredith Jakovich, the director of the Caldwell County Christian Ministries Food Pantry, got the green light to start the garden, the 4,500 square foot veggie garden has flourished, already providing more than 276 pounds of food going into the summer harvest, which will include eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, various types of squash, melons, okra and too many tomatoes to count.

All of this on an erstwhile largely fallow patch of dirt located behind the food pantry.

“For over a year, I looked at this space from my office and it was just a barren piece of land. I thought, we need to have a garden,” said Jakovich, who got Mayor Lew White’s blessing before going all in. “I asked Sue if she was up for it, she said ‘Heck yes,’ and just turned this barren piece of land into a flourishing garden that feeds our clients. And it’s all organic with a great variety.”

Bussa said the garden produces its own compost from pantry food waste and donations. The compost is used to nourish the plants. The gardens grow year-round, with seasonal plantings in both the spring and fall.

This summer, peppers and tomatoes are the most abundant crops at the garden, but that’s because they’re often requested by the clients who regularly access the pantry to feed their families.

The reason we chose to do so many tomatoes is because tomatoes are hard to ship,” Jakovich explained. “We don’t usually have them on our shopping list with Central Texas Food Bank. So I asked Sue if we could put them in the garden, and there you have it.”

The ingenuity of Bussa and her crew of devoted volunteers is apparent in the garden. Homemade compost is cultivated in bins. Unused cardboard boxes are flattened and used for weed control. Raised beds are largely constructed from cinder blocks, which are more inexpensive than the lumber traditionally seen in backyard gardens. Watering is done with a pair of oversized sprinklers from a local business, Smith Supply Co. And a flower garden planted by the Master Gardeners attracts the pollinating insects necessary for any garden to flourish.

“I have wonderful volunteers,” Bussa said. “My volunteers say they love being in the garden because it feeds your soul. You get exercise, you build muscle and you get the spiritual benefit from participating in nature’s life cycle.”

But they could use more regular harvesters. And anyone who wants to harvest or volunteer in the garden can call the food pantry at 512-376-6661.

“Harvest is the most fun in my opinion, because they have been working so hard to get this done, and now it’s time for the picking,” Jakovich said. “Sue is out here several mornings a week, and no experience is necessary.”

Customer input helps determine what is planted and how much.

“We are in the process now of polling our clients to get feedback from them about what they want — What they want more of, what they like,” Jakovich said. “Give them a list of what they want and let them choose. So they’re invested. We want to give the clients what they are using.”

Added Sue, “We did that about the beets, broccoli and herbs, and they said ‘More, more, more!’”

Jakovich, who started with the pantry in 2017 as a volunteer, said she hoped to eventually implement more educational programs involving the garden and what it produces.

“We want more educational programs as we grow,” Jakovich said. “Like a cooking class, and having children like the Girl Scouts, who visited recently. They were just fascinated that they could pick stuff straight out and eat it.

“We would definitely like to have more of an educational component to this, because it’s the future.”

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