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Manna Meal garden supplies its soup kitchen

Lawrence Pierce
Judy Nottingham (left) and Lakin Cook cut chard, while Jean Simpson (right) pulls up weeds in the Manna Meal garden Monday evening.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Volunteers and staff at Manna Meal in Charleston have been feeding hungry people in the region for the last 38 years with the help of grants and donations. But five years ago, director Jean Simpson and volunteer Myra Dolan decided it was time to enlist the help of seeds, sunshine and soil.

Manna Meal has had its own garden since 2009, and it produces 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of produce each season, depending on what crops the staff chooses to grow, Simpson said. This year, she and Dolan have chosen a variety of leafy vegetables, including chard, kale, spinach, lettuce and herbs.

According to Simpson, the garden has had 225 volunteers come through this year, from Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops to Master Gardeners in the area. They harvest an average of 150 pounds of produce each day, which goes to the salad bar at Manna Meal and the food pantries at Covenant House and other area agencies.

"It has connected us with a whole different group of volunteers that we've never had before," she said.

Manna Meal, a soup kitchen housed at St. John Episcopal Church on Quarrier Street, provides breakfast and lunch seven days a week to anyone who walks through its doors. Manna Meal has fed more than 1.3 million people in its history, and serves as many as 380 people two meals each day.

Simpson said she has always wanted the meals served through the agency to include fresh greens, and the produce grown at the garden is supplemented by donations from the Kroger on Charleston's West Side.

"We count on the out-of-date products from Kroger to fill in the rest; we go to them every single day and they give us their out-of-date products, or produce that has been bruised, or items that people don't normally pick up or aren't sellable," Simpson said. "People are picky when they go to a grocery store because they want whatever they buy to last a long time in the refrigerator, so if it has a blemish on it, they'll normally leave it."

Simpson said the Kroger donations were the agency's only source for produce before starting the garden, which takes up more than half an acre and accompanies more than three acres for composting and storage. Manna Meal has harvested 1,176 pounds of produce so far this year, and Simpson said they will continue to work in the garden through November.

"We're putting in more kale and collard greens; those are two good crops that rapidly grow, and once the seed is in the ground, you can pick from it for a two to three-month period and it keeps growing," she said. "This way, we can just keep them going into winter and then cover them during the winter, so that we can uncover them in the spring and we'll have our early spring crop."

Volunteers are planting this week for the garden's fall crop.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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