St. Gabriel’s parishioners help feed Kansas City’s hungry

A St. Gabriel’s Youth group member takes a turn on the tiller as others watch and yell encouragement. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Imagine the setting: A lush 1/3-acre garden full of human-sized tomato plants, sweet potatoes, green beans, eggplant, carrots, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, turnips and marigolds growing in bottom land near the north bank of the Missouri River.

The name: St. Isidore’s Garden. Isidore, the patron saint of farmers among his many patronages, was known during his lifetime for sharing what he had with the poor and the hungry, even his own meals.

The cast: St. Gabriel Archangel parish’s Youth group directed by Diane Pickert and a dozen or so parishioners.  To help alleviate hunger in Kansas City, the kids and adults work side-by-side in St. Isidore’s Garden, tilling, planting, thinning, watering and growing the vegetables, harvest them side-by-side then donate the fresh produce to homeless shelters, Little Sisters of the Poor, the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society, St. James Place, Jerusalem Farm, Our Lady of Mercy Country Home, City Union Mission and a dozen other charities.

It’s not in your imagination, it’s very real. It all started about a decade ago, when the Society of St. Andrew, which worked to “Stop hunger by creating hunger awareness,” visited St. Gabriel’s Parish. Pickert recalled, “They taught us about the hungry of our city and what gleaning is all about. Gleaning is gathering what is left behind by reapers after the harvest, fruits, vegetables and grains that fell to the ground or were missed by the reapers and harvesters.” Often the produce is unsellable for cosmetic reasons, but perfectly good to eat.

The United States is the 11th wealthiest nation in the world, with a per capita income of more than $59,000. Yet, according to the latest available statistics (2016), more than 41 million Americans, including more than 13 million children, live in food-insecure households, meaning they are unsure of where their next meal is coming from and if it will be enough to feed the family. Food insecurity exists in every U.S. county, in varying percentages.

Pickert said the youth group was invited to “go out and glean” locally with the Society of St. Andrew. They spent one whole summer gleaning local farms. “A farmer in Platte County taught us a lot about gleaning and gardening,” she said. “We helped him multiple times that summer and he got everyone really interested in feeding the hungry.”

The Society of St. Andrew, then a national organization, hosted a week of Gleaning and learning about stopping hunger in the U.S. in North Carolina in 2010. St. Gabriel’s Youth Group wanted to attend it. When Pickert learned there was a Steubenville Conference the weekend before in Atlanta, the group decided to make it a mission trip: First to Atlanta for the conference and then to gleaning in North Carolina.

It was an excellent trip, Pickert later said. The kids learned about hunger and the amount of food wasted each year. Then they gleaned what was left after the harvest and saw perfectly wonderful food being thrown away. “That week we gleaned 26,000 pounds of food to feed the hungry and we were in awe.”

Norm VanBooven and a youth group member harvest tomatoes. (Marty Denzer/Key Photo)

When the gleaning program coordinators talked about hunger in America, the young people were amazed at the numbers of the hungry, even in their own city. Most of us don’t realize how much perfectly edible, nutritious food is wasted each year, thrown out by restaurants, grocery stores, and households as well as farmers.

Olivia Messina, a youth group member, recalled gleaning potatoes, kale and green peppers “It was hard work,” she said, “but knowing why we did it made it awesome. We were doing it to feed hungry people. And we began talking about starting our own garden.”

Pickert said attendees had to set three goals by the end of the gleaning week — one personal, one group and one community goal. “Creating a garden to feed the hungry in Kansas City was our community goal. We came back all ambitious, ready to roll and quickly found out it wasn’t going to be that easy! We talked with our pastor, Father Joe Sharbel, and tried to find a spot at St. Gabriel’s. We had the soil tested and learned that it wasn’t good soil for growing food plants.”

They then turned to the parish, asking parishioners to dedicate a 5 x 5 plot of land in their yards to grown one kind of vegetable. Several said, “Possibly.” Then Norman VanBooven, “a parish grandfather,” approached Pickert and offered the land they needed all in one place on his and his wife Edith’s property between the river and I-435.

Around the same time, the annual Stockholders Dinner, a Futures in Faith program wherein parishioners purchase stock in St. Gabriel’s youth as a fundraiser, was held. Pickert said, “We thank the stockholders by feeding them and giving a presentation of what we’ve done over the past year, what we hope to do and give them an opportunity to share what they’ve liked about what the youth have done, and what they’d like them to do differently. Parishioner Robert Rottinghaus said he wanted to see that garden they’d been talking about planted.”

As Pickert and the kids knew little of gardening or farming, Rottinghaus said he’d be happy to help them. VanBooven cleared some of the land and, In the spring of 2012, they planted potatoes and prayed to the patron saint of farmers, St. Isidore, that it would rain. And rain it did! Fr. Sharbel blessed the garden, which was christened St. Isidore’s Garden because he answered the prayers for rain, later that year.

Rottinghaus, the VanBoovens and other parishioners spend time working with and teaching the young people what they know about gardening, farming, machinery and life. Norm VanBooven said the garden wouldn’t exist if not for Rottinghaus.

Several young men have learned to use a power tiller. A tiller prepares the soil for vegetable gardens and planting beds, leaving it loose and drainable which ensures root growth and thus, abundant crops. Other kids and adults plant, water and weed. And all enjoy harvesting, weighing and delivering fresh produce to those who most appreciate it.

Olivia loves delivering St. Isidore’s Garden produce to homeless shelters. “They are so grateful, and it’s awesome to witness. They’ll pick a tomato or another vegetable out of the back of the pickup truck, and just start eating it. The joy in their eyes!”
Susan Hodapp, whose son Zach is a Youth Group member, said she is awed that she is helping be “the physical hands of Christ, sowing, reaping and donating food to the poor and hungry sheep of Christ.”

Other weeders, waterers, harvesters, and weighers included John Carroll, Mary Billiard (who is an involved 92-year old), John Misch, Pat Smith, Bill Hodapp, Kevin Stump, Zach Hodapp, Olivia Messina, Robert Rottinghaus, Norman and Edith Van Booven, their daughter Jeannie Van Booven Shook and grandchildren Avery, Jordan, Sophila and Sadie Shook.

The weighing done, VanBooven sang out the total harvest for the day: 263 pounds (which included a 5-pound turnip!). Since the garden started, 50,000 pounds of fresh produce has been donated to help feed the hungry.  Regular deliveries are made to the cooks at Our Lady of Mercy Country Home in Liberty and Little Sisters of the Poor—Jeanne Jugan Center, in South Kansas City who react with delight, Edith VanBooven said.

Olivia was succinct. “It’s neat, it’s necessary and we do make a difference!”


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph