Friday, June 04, 2010

TOP STORY > >Church plants garden to feed the hungry

Leader staff writer

Tucked away at the end of a street in a North Little Rock suburb is a garden that will provide fresh food for families from Jacksonville, Sherwood and North Little Rock as well as Lonoke County. It is named ‘The Gleaners’ Garden.’

The near quarter-acre garden got a bit of a late start, having just been planted a week ago by volunteers from North Little Rock Central Baptist Church, owner of the land, but okra and purple-hull pea seedlings are already popping up, and transplanted cucumbers, squash, peppers, eggplant and peppers are taking off too.

Those crops along with yet-to-be sown pinto beans and sweet potatoes promise a summer bounty for more than 1,500 families fed each month by the church’s food pantry, which is located in Sherwood off Warden Road.

“It is busy, busy,” says Dale Prater, the director of the pantry, now in its 10th year. “Demand is up 10 to 15 percent from a year ago. Families come from places where there isn’t a pantry like Austin, Ward and Lonoke. Last week we had 10 to 12 families just from Scott.”

Last year, Prater organized a contingent of 35 to 40 church volunteers as well as work-release prisoners to glean fields in Scott belonging to farmer Dale O’Neal. More than 25,000 pounds of produce were harvested to feed the hungry, through the Arkansas Hunger Relief’s gleaning network. But the distance was inconvenient for some, so the idea was born to start a garden on church property.

The pantry also feeds about 75 residents at two transitional homes for former prison inmates, located in North Little Rock, as well as 35 to 40 families who live at Prothro Junction government-subsidized housing. Prater chose those folks to help because their need is great. To qualify to live there, household annual income cannot exceed $15,000. And in the last year, the pantry has started filling backpacks with food for 100 elementary school students in North Little Rock who come from families of low income.

No one is turned away who asks for help from the pantry, but single, able-bodied men are “asked why,” says Prater. “That is not what the pantry is for,” We want them working, but we will give them a couple of months of food.”

Grandmothers taking care of grandkids and single moms comprise a “large majority” who depend on the pantry, but since the economic downturn in 2008, “families who have never had to come to a pantry before” are showing up, Prater said. Lately, meeting the need has not always been easy, and the pantry has run short of non-perishables.

Prater is grateful to North Little Rock and Jacksonville businesses that donate food regularly to the pantry, including Starbucks, Panera Bread, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars and Daylite Donuts.

This Saturday for the first time, Prater will make a run by the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market in North Little Rock at the close of market to pick-up food that growers wish to donate to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

That food will be distributed through the Central Baptist Church pantry and others in the area.

Prater knows what it is like to not have enough to eat, having been “born and raised in poverty” in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. His father farmed the mountain slopes, tended a large apple orchard and gave much of what he grew away.

“We were self-sufficient,” Prater recalled. “My dad taught me how to work, and my mother taught me the Bible.”

One of Prater’s favorite childhood memories involved his Uncle Marvin, a resourceful soul who ran a tavern where men congregated to gamble. The business put spare money in the man’s pocket, which he spent generously at Christmas.

“He bought half the kids in town presents,” Prater recalled. “I would get an apple, banana, an orange, and sometime walnuts,” rare treats for those who lived in Greasy Creek, Kentucky. “That’s three hollers over from where Loretta Lynn was from – Butcher Holler.”

“I said that someday I wanted to be able to help people like Uncle Marvin,” Prater said. “I know what it is like to be hungry.”

An ordained minister, Prater considers raising and distributing food to those in need to be his true ministry, although he does at times preach from the pulpit. He says he prefers a vegetable garden to “four walls.”

“My pulpit is out here in the community, where God has called me to be,” Prater says.

For Prater, a garden is a source, not only of food, but wisdom. He recounted an early lesson, when he was 18 about to leave home and join the Air Force. He was out in the apple orchard with his father, who asked him to look at one of the trees, laden with fruit.

“He told me the tree that bears the most fruit is closest to the ground. That was a lesson about humility, about being humble, not being above someone. Always treating everyone like you’d like to be treated,” Prater said.