It started five years ago as a Ramah Day Camp project -- 400 square feet of land on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, where campers could add hands-on gardening to their nature programs.
Every year, the patch got a bit bigger. This season, with an extra push from the Mitzvah Mania community volunteer day, the garden expanded from an educational project to a 10,000-square-foot source of produce for low-income families and seniors struggling with food insecurity.
Twice a week over the summer, each of the 260 campers took part in planting, weeding and watering the sprawling patches of vegetables. Several of them returned with their Hebrew school classes this fall -- even this week, as Sukkot wound down -- to harvest the crops.
The fruits -- and vegetables -- of their labors have been so plentiful that to date, the little community garden that could has yielded more than 1,300 pounds of produce for the Mitzvah Food Project and area meal- delivery programs.
The Ramah project is part of a national trend to grow food for the needy. Locally, it is among a handful of Jewish communal gardens that have cropped up in the past few years to support hunger-relief efforts throughout the region. Others include ones managed by Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park; the Abramson Center for Jewish Life, a senior facility in North Wales; and the Klein JCC, which this year also planted five smaller gardens at senior centers.
Landscaper Brad Baker, one of the masterminds behind the local movement, started Beth Sholom's garden eight years ago. Shortly after, he was helping Ramah Day Camp's director, Sue Ansul, with her garden.
Originally, Ansul said, the purpose of the garden was to show campers how the Jewish calendar was linked to the environment and teach them about conservation, irrigation and other tenets of environmentalism.
Although campers added to the garden each year, it mushroomed in April when it was featured as a Mitzvah Mania project, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. More than $5,000 from the Federation's Mitzvah Mania funds, Women's Cabinet and an endowment paid for fencing, fruit trees, plants, seeds and other supplies. Roughly 100 volunteers turned out to plant and install drainage pipes that day.
Campers took over the cultivation from there.
Beyond the unexpected life lesson in mitzvot, Jenkintown mom Wendy Armon said working on the garden has taught her three young campers about the care and attention that goes into growing food.
"They get it from seed to table, I guess you could say," said Armon, managing director of InterFaithways. It's almost like an economics lesson, she said, because they get a sense of how a community can come together to put food on the table for those in need.
The way Ansul sees it, the garden has potential for even more food production, not to mention intergenerational programming, if she can continue rallying campers and community members to take ownership during the school year.
In the Northeast, mostly senior volunteers at the Klein JCC maintain what is dubbed a "community-wellness garden" that was established in 2007 with Federation seed money.
That, too, started modestly -- "just a fenced-in area" behind the building, said senior center counselor Barbara Ponczek. Gradually, volunteers filled it with flower boxes, herbs, benches and rows of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas and string beans. Preschool, after-school and camp programs incorporated gardening into their activities.
"They come out amazed by how the vegetables are growing," Ponczek said. "They're used to going to the supermarket and taking them off the shelf."
Inspired by the success of the garden, Klein staff designated funds from a three-year, $186,000 Corporation for National and Community Service grant aimed at helping seniors "age in place" to create "Grow for a Friend." Through that program, newly hired hunger-relief volunteer manager Sue Aistrop, who also oversees meal deliveries and home repairs, purchased waist-high garden beds for the Klein and Mandell gardens, as well as for five senior centers: the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center, Juniata Park Senior Center, Journey's Way, Salvation Army Booth Residence and Salvation Army Ivy Residence.
Once the beds are installed, "planting a little plant is a really easy and satisfying thing to do," Aistrop said, because seniors can stay seated or in a wheelchair while they work. "It's just been kind of magical," Aistrop said. So many of these seniors "had gardens or had homes but they can't manage it anymore. It gives them a chance to get back to it."
The senior gardeners will donate the produce they don't use to the Mitzvah Food Project or "Cook for a Friend." Volunteer groups from the region prepared about 50,000 homemade kosher meals for the "Cook" program last year, which were frozen and delivered to 500 homebound seniors.
Klein JCC also recently received a $50,000 grant from Walmart in partnership with the Meals on Wheels Association of America that will more than double the size of its on-site garden with the addition of a 2,600-square-foot greenhouse, a shed and an outdoor freezer. The greenhouse, which could open as early as next spring, will allow volunteers to grow crops year-round, increasing the amount of produce they can provide to the community, staff members said.
Even without the greenhouse, Klein volunteers harvested thousands of pounds of food this season, according to staff.
Unlike past years, when community garden donations provided more of an occasional bonus for Mitzvah Food Project packages, this year they've been a consistent source of produce for the clients served at two of its pantry sites, Beth Sholom and Klein JCC, said project manager Drisana Davis.
The produce not only provides critical nutrients to people who sorely need them, "it also helps our recipients feel more connected to the community," Davis said. Clients who receive the homegrown veggies often leave messages saying how grateful they are to be cared for by the Jewish community, she said.
Overall, the Mitvah Food Project distributed 7,069 produce packages over the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, a 62 percent increase from the year before. Although community garden vegetables only went to two sites, staff made a point of gleaning imperfect leftovers from farmers markets or purchasing produce for its four other sites in the region, Davis said.
Ideally, Davis said, all of their sites would one day have "feeder" gardens.
It's "more efficient than purchasing food at a grocery store -- environmentally, ecologically and financially."