Let the Sun Shine In

by Nicole Lessin
Photography by Whitney Arostegui

On a Saturday morning, in the basement of University Presbyterian Church where the Micah 6 food pantry is held, a tall man in his fifties pauses by a box of assorted greens—part of a regular donation offered by some dedicated growers from the nonprofit Sunshine Community Gardens.

“Give me a hug, Barbara,” he says with a smile to the woman near the booth, and decade-long pantry volunteer Barbara Anderson obliges with a friendly embrace. Afterward, the man chooses a bunch of turnips sporting a bouquet of fresh greens and rounded, purple-and-white roots hanging down. “That’s wonderful,” he says, surveying his selection before continuing down the aisle. 

Fellow volunteer Vicki Yarnell says this kind of enthusiastic response to Sunshine’s organically grown produce is common among pantry “shoppers” (in the store-like atmosphere, free choice is respected). “The shoppers are just like, Wow!” says Yarnell. “Even for those of us who work in the pantry, we’re surprised by the variety of greens and vegetables that come in—some that we’re not even familiar with.”

Sunshine Community Gardens sits about two and a half miles away from the pantry, on the campus of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and has long been a welcoming urban oasis frequented not only by the more than 100 members who come to till their personal garden plots, but also by nearby state employees who visit on their lunch hour—and an assortment of mockingbirds, hawks, rabbits and the occasional red fox who also come for the alfresco dining. Since 2007, a core group of volunteers has tended a 60- by 30-foot plot at the center of the site dedicated exclusively to growing food for Micah 6. The plot features neatly divided sections that are under the purview of certain specialists, such as Jim Willmann, “The Tomato Man” and Randy Thompson, “The Pepper Man.”

Over the last few years, the Micah 6 plot has provided approximately 2,500 pounds of fresh vegetables for the food pantry per year—including seasonal favorites such as mustard greens, radishes, peas, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, snow peas, spinach and winter squash in the colder months, and an array of tomatoes and peppers, okra, cucumbers, summer squash, eggplants, herbs and more in the warmer season. Linda Francescone, who currently co-coordinates a team of about 16 volunteers for the project along with fellow gardener Susan Hoberman, says the growers take a lot of factors into consideration when deciding what to plant—including which crops have the longest harvesting seasons and how much variety can be available at a given time. “Some years it’s better than others,” she says. “Last year we had terrible luck with kale and Swiss chard. I mean, the Swiss chard came after a while, but we had issues with aphids. It was just gardening,” she adds with a laugh. 

Volunteers are instructed to pick only the best-looking produce to send to the pantry. “We want the vegetables to be clean,” Francescone says. “We want them to be processed in bunches, and we want to tie them so they look pretty, so that when people pick them up, it’s like they’re at the grocery store.” Items not chosen for the pantry are often taken by the volunteers for personal consumption. “Stuff that we take home [would include] a tomato that a bird pecked a hole in,” Thompson adds. “You could just slice it away.”

Most of the volunteer gardeners say their participation in the project is hugely fulfilling—some say it’s even part of their spiritual practice. “We all like fresh vegetables, so we wanted to share with a population that doesn’t necessarily have good access to really fresh ones,” Willmann says. “You know, tomatoes in the store are not nearly as good as homegrown.” Nancy Seibert, who previously served as the coordinator, adds, “We want to see that people have good food to eat,” she says. “And we know they appreciate it.”

Micah 6 pantry volunteers say the Sunshine Community Gardens’ produce has filled a critical need for the nonprofit, which relies entirely on donations to feed nearly 400 people each week through their twice-a-week pantry. “It has made a huge difference that we have fresh vegetables come in,” Anderson says. “Previously, we did have some but they weren’t greens, for instance. They were more potatoes and onions and apples, that sort of thing.” 

Joe Bell, director of the Micah 6 pantry, says that access to locally grown vegetables is uniquely important, and all-too-often unavailable to the poor. “If [the shoppers] get it from the Sunshine Gardens, it was grown right here—where they live. And it’s only a few hours away from having been a live plant in the ground,” he says. “There’s a sense of: we breathe this air…we live in this sunshine…we drink this water. We should also eat this food that grows here.”

For more information about Sunshine Community Gardens and Micah 6 food pantry, visit sunshinecommunitygardens.org and micah6austin.org