In Sylva, the buy local mantra is being reinterpreted as grow your own.
Volunteers at the Community Table, a nonprofit that provides free, nutritious meals to anyone who needs them, helped to create the Sylva Community Garden six years ago as a way to supplement the kitchen’s supply of food.
The demand for free meals has increased dramatically over the 10 years the Community Table has been in existence, and consequently, so has the need for fresh vegetables. Last year, the Community Table provided an average of 40 meals per night. This year, the number is closer to 120.
For Kevin Hughes, kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator, ramping up the effort to feed more hungry bellies is all in a day’s work.
“It means getting here earlier in the morning to prepare, a lot more food, and a lot more volunteer hours,” said Hughes.
The mission of the Sylva Community Garden is community service. Using a 1/3-acre plot owned by Dr. Gwang Han, the garden provides a common space for local organic gardeners to ply their trade and at the same time provide food for local families that need it.
Over the past three months, 71 volunteers have worked the 20 plots that make up the garden. The individuals that maintain the plots put in countless hours cultivating food. Half of what they grow must be donated to the Community Table or other organizations that feed hungry people.
For Ann Tiner, who helps coordinate volunteers in the garden and serves on the Community Table steering committee, the result of the two organizations working together is amazing.
“I think it’s a magic show to watch these guys come into this tiny little kitchen and provide this delicious food,” Tiner said. “It’s fresh and it’s like you’re in a restaurant and you can just choose what sounds good to you.”
There is nothing institutional about the Community Table. People who come are given a choice of food and sit at common tables in a cozy room that feels like a tavern.
Likewise, there is nothing institutional about the Sylva Community Garden. It’s a loose collective of volunteers who grow what they want to eat. As the demand for fresh produce at the Community Table has grown, Tiner and Hughes have had to work harder to coordinate the harvesting, processing, and storage of the food the garden produces.
“A little sack of lettuce doesn’t really help,” said Tiner.
In addition, farmers and gardeners from the surrounding area make frequent contributions to the Community Table.
Hughes came in one day last August and found 500 pounds of fresh produce waiting for him on the doorstep. To him, dealing with the fresh produce may be challenging, but it’s also the point of his job.
“Seasonally, you come to expect things, but there’s always the surprise aspect of what’s coming in from local farmers and gardens,” Hughes said.
This year, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Citizen’s Bank have collaborated to plant a vegetable garden in a plot behind the church. Tiner, a parishioner, and Patty Curtis, the pastor, are working hard in the garden to produce food that will end up at the Community Table.
Hughes loves working with local, organically grown food.
“It’s fantastic because our mission statement is to provide a nutritious meal,” Hughes said. “The fresh produce we are getting doesn’t have any pesticides, it’s not genetically modified, and it’s just that much better.”
Tiner said finding a way to bring the food from the community’s garden to its table is about more than having fresh produce. It’s about communicating the message that we are all responsible for our land and for each other.
“As much as the growth of the food is important, it is also about education and making people aware,” Tiner said. “I still fight the notion that this is a luxury. This is how it’s supposed to be. It goes back to the way things used to be.”