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Cornucopia of food, including produce from church gardens, donated to ACTC

Michele Miller, of Idlewylde, stands near a garden behind Ascension Lutheran Church with tomatoes she recently picked there. The garden's yield is donated to the Assistance Center of Towson, which provides food for needy persons.
Michele Miller, of Idlewylde, stands near a garden behind Ascension Lutheran Church with tomatoes she recently picked there. The garden's yield is donated to the Assistance Center of Towson, which provides food for needy persons. (Steve Ruark, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The 1,000 baskets arrived a week before Thanksgiving and were waiting to be filled. There will be canned sweet potatoes and boxes of stuffing mix, canned beef stew or chili and a dessert. Each basket will have a $10 gift card redeemable at local grocery stores.

It's a busy time at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches (ACTC), 120 W. Pennsylvania Ave. in Towson. The nonprofit organization of 40 churches in the area provides help to the needy and homeless persons in 24 ZIP codes in the northeast corner of Baltimore County.

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ACTC's member-churches, individuals and organizations donated the food and gift cards for the Thanksgiving baskets, said Leslie Strawhand, assistant to the director, who will have them ready in time for this most American of holidays.

But the annual Thanksgiving event is a drop in the basket compared to the help ACTC offers year-round. It maintains a pantry of nonperishable food items and, from spring through fall, the harvest season, has an assortment of fresh vegetables from church gardens as well.

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"Clients come in and choose from what's available. They are allotted a number of nonperishables based on family size," Strawhand said of items in the pantry like cereal, tuna fish, spaghetti sauce and pasta, peanut butter and jelly. The Fresh Market donates bread; Starbucks and Chipotle contribute items as well.

Strawhand says at least two of its member churches have gardens dedicated to growing vegetables for ACTC. They are Ascension Evangelical Lutheran Church, 7601 York Road, and Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 West Chesapeake Ave.

"We'll get produce up to the first frost," Strawhand said.

The perishable items are allocated to clients on the same basis as the nonperishables. Any leftover produce is donated weekly to Manna House and Our Daily Bread, both of which serve food to homeless persons.

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"Everything is used," she said.

Michele Miller is in charge of Ascension's garden. Miller, a church member and Towson resident, said the garden began in 2011 thanks to a $500 Food and Faith grant from the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

The church started with two 4- by 4-foot garden boxes, and has since added a third box of the same size plus a large 10- by 4-foot box. The garden is located on church grounds near the preschool building.

"I love gardening. I felt there was a need in the community" for the garden's bounty, said Miller, who starts planning the garden in March and has volunteer help throughout the spring and summer for planting and maintenance.

Although most of the garden's produce goes to ACTC, Miller reserves some for the preschoolers.

"Kids don't know where their food comes from anymore, or what it looks like when it grows," she said.

Miller's major crop is tomatoes. She also grows peppers, which she lets ripen to orange, red and yellow; cauliflower and broccoli, and some leaf lettuce and Brussels sprouts.

"I was delivering tomatoes to ACTC up to the week" before Thanksgiving, Miller said.

Towson Presbyterian Church's garden has a name, the Intergenerational Garden. Begun in 2010, it is located on Highland Avenue, on church-owned land across the street from the church itself.

The 20- by 30-foot garden is surrounded by rabbit-resistant screening. Flowers are grown around the perimeter, to decorate the church and as gifts for elderly people in the neighborhood and senior facilities.

Jennifer Bolster, a church member and Towson resident, belongs to what she calls "the garden group." The group meets in February to begin planning the spring gardening season.

"The primary purpose of the garden is to provide fresh produce for ACTC. Our guidelines for planting are what ACTC clients want," said Bolster, a self-described "life-long gardener."

Not surprisingly, ACTC's clients have definite preferences. Summer staples like tomatoes, lettuce, green beans and zucchini are favorites. Kale and okra are not. Neither are beets and broccoli.

As for kale and okra, Strawhand said they're unfamiliar to most clients. "Except if they're from the south and then they'll say, 'I remember mom used to make this,'" she added.

This past growing season, Towson Presbyterian delivered to ACTC 33 gallon bags of lettuce (Swiss chard, romaine, green and red leaf), 208 pounds of tomatoes (cherry, roma, heirloom), 117 pounds of green beans, 28 pounds of broccoli and 33 pounds of zucchini. That doesn't count the cucumbers, yellow squash, beets, green peppers and kale it also grew.

John and Madeleine Sheehan live a couple of blocks from the church and garden. They are part of a volunteer group of about 12 that maintains the garden. Their job is harvesting.

Sheehan is the first to tell you he isn't a gardener.

"I'm a worker bee," said Sheehan, who with his wife decides when something is ripe enough to pick. During the peak growing season, they pick and pack produce and deliver it to ACTC two and three times a week.

"This was a record year for green beans," said Sheehan. "Last year, the squash grew so fast it grew over the top of the fence."

Bolster says planting at the Towson Presbyterian garden begins in March but really gets going in April and May with the warmer weather. Groups of church members and members of the community help with the spring planting.

"We have an online sign-up for tasks," she said. "In the fall, we try to publicize the garden and the spring season."

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