Charlestown Garden Feeds Community

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Growing fruits and vegetables in a 227-acre park that includes a wildlife refuge isn’t easy, but neither is feeding the hungry.

The Charlestown Community Garden, which organizers refer to as a “sustainable hunger solution,” is 9,500 square feet of beets, broccoli, blueberries and bok choy. This bounty is protected from deer, rabbits and other park wildlife by a fence that rises above the garden and sinks below it, to keep leaping deer and tunneling groundhogs from snacking on food destined to feed some of South County’s most needy.

“It’s amazing, and not in a good way, how many people need food,” said Susie Fehrmann, executive director of the Ninigret Park-based garden. “We’re more of a farm than a garden. We’re trying to maximize our produce so we can feed more people. We’re trying to figure out how we can produce more.”

The all-volunteer farm with an empty bank account is producing plenty, thanks to the generosity of area residents and businesses and the efforts of people like Fehrmann. So far during its first full growing season, the community garden has grown and delivered nearly 670 pounds of organic produce, including 206 pounds of kale, 179 pounds of lettuce, 38 pounds of squash and 35 pounds of green beans.

The Charlestown Community Garden, now in its second year, is the result of a local Boy Scout’s vision. Chris Hacunda, for his Eagle Scout project, wanted to plant a community flower garden in Ninigret Park. When he contacted Parks & Recreation director Jay Primiano, the affable town employee tweaked the idea. He suggested that the eager Boy Scout plant vegetables instead, so that the food could be used to feed senior citizens at the park’s Community/Senior Center and the rest donated to local pantries.

Besides growing food for the nearby Senior Center, the community garden distributes the rest of its produce to four other area institutions — the Bradford Jonnycake Center of Westerly, the Rhode Island Center Assisting Those In Need (RICAN), Westerly Area Rest Meals (WARM) Inc. and the St. Andrew Lutheran Church. Garden produce also finds its way into local Meals on Wheels deliveries.

“We need to build and maintain the health of our citizens today and for tomorrow,” Primiano said. “People deserve to eat healthy food.”

The garden/farm also is nourishing people in another way. It is literally building community. Volunteers range in age from 5-83, Senior Center staff adds kitchen scraps to the garden’s three compost piles, volunteerism builds friendships, mentally disabled adults and children are encouraged to get their hands dirty, and kids learn there’s more to eating than munching on processed foodstuffs.

“It’s important to be with people,” said local resident Sal Garofalo. “Socializing and taking with people is important too.”

The 83-year-old Garofalo, who volunteers at the garden twice a week for about four hours, also does his share of weeding and digging. “I do whatever they tell me to do,” he said with a wide smile.

Several volunteers are regular workers, but the need for extra hands is constant, according to Fehrmann. Volunteers don’t have to make a regular commitment, and just volunteering once for an hour or two makes a difference, she said.