The headquarters of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter on Quincy Street has three stories and 14,000 square feet aimed at feeding people in need. But executive director Lisa Christie thought there was one part of the property that could do even more for the organization’s mission.
“I looked at the grounds outside and said, I think we need to use the space to help feed people," Christie explained, "and also use some of volunteers and maybe some of the people who eat at the soup kitchen or get food, to teach them how to grow some of their own food in the hopes that maybe they’d get a community garden plot in Nashua and have their own food.”
In a small plot of land between the building’s stone walls and the city sidewalk, there are eight raised beds bursting with greens. Cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini grow fat in a tangle of vines while neat rows of herbs poke above the soil. These plants and vegetables were planted just over a month ago and already volunteers have harvested twice. Dennis Roy, who tends the gardens five or six times a week, is impressed with the growth. “This garden," he said, "I guess it’s the soil from Morin’s landscaping. I haven’t seen anything like this in my 37 years of gardening. It’s just amazing.”
The kitchen got help from the community to set up the gardens. Along with organic soil and mulch from Morin’s Lanscaping in Nashua, Jessie Benhazl from Green City Growers, a Massachusetts-based urban gardening consultant, provided seeds, organic growing advice and volunteer training. Volunteers from Fidelity Investments built the pesticide-free beds, and the gardens are maintained by volunteers from both the community and the client base at the soup kitchen. And appealing as they are, Christie says the gardens have been free from vandalism and theft.
“In fact," she explained, "we put up some signs that said, 'This produce is to feed the people that come to the soup kitchen. Please don’t take it. If you need help, please come see us.' And nobody has stolen a single tomato, a single pepper. I think people are very respectful of what we’re doing. And we’re really happy about that, too.”
The kitchen serves between 80 and 250 people a day at breakfast and dinner. Christie says the organic produce from the gardens is offering the kitchen’s clients more nutritious meals. “It doesn’t get much better than, it got picked in the afternoon and somebody is eating it for dinner," Christie grinned.
While the garden harvest is used only in hot meals for now, both Christie and Roy predict the fresh produce will start to show up in the pantry for use by the more than 100 families who use it each day. Community Outreach Manager Carol Weeks is already making plans for the fall, explaining they'll bring in some cool weather crops, like spinach and different lettuces, that don't grow in the summer heat.
Christie says fresh produce is still a very new program, just an add-on to the other services the kitchen and shelter offer, but that’s exactly why she’s so eager to watch it grow.