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Gardener Interview – Star Light Center

Below are excerpts from a conversation between intern Charlie Henzel and Keli McLellan to reflect upon Star Light Center’s experience and time with Grow Food Northampton’s Community Garden:

What is Star Light Center?

Star Light Center, located on Nonotuck Street in Florence, is a non-clinical, non profit membership organization which helps those with severe mental illness. It can be seen as a vocational recovery community with members that are looking to integrate themselves in the community whether through taking part in furthering their education, finding work, or volunteering.

Star Light has a lunch program, and with being a nonprofit we are pretty limited with our budget. We have a lunch every day and its planned a month ahead of time by everybody, we all choose what we want the menu to look like. From there we do grocery shopping once a week and we cook in the morning and serve it around noon. Members would not pay more than $2 for a meal, so it is pretty affordable and we try to make it work for members that are on a limited income. So we try to help by saying if you put $20 on your account you get $5 free, things like that.

How many plots do you have at the Community Garden?

We have one plot.

How long have you had the plot?

This is our third summer gardening, but it is our fourth summer being a part of Grow Food Northampton in regards to the Giving Garden.

How did you hear about Grow Food Northampton?

One of Star Light Center’s most dedicated gardeners.

We do outreach visits in different places to potential members or people that are members and they just aren’t able to come in. For example, a hospital or Respite. Respite is a program through Clinical Support Options, and is a place where people can go if someone is in crisis and they are not at the point where they need to go to the hospital. There are people there who are trained to support them and work with them. We go there once a week and [a staff member] knew about the Giving Garden since Respite has 2 plots there, and she told me to contact Pat, so I did!

Initially, we started receiving food from the Giving Garden and got produce from it all summer. We eventually were brought down to the Master gardener’s plot and they offered to cut it in half, and give half of it to us.

How many people are involved in the garden?

We have one member who works at UMass during the school year, but during the summer she is off; she is one of the hardest workers I know. Everyday she always asks “when are we going to the garden!” Generally though, there are two people who tend it, whether it is myself and a member, another staff and a member, or just two members that go. We visit about 5 days of the week, it is nice to break up the day a little bit. We have though a solid group of six people who have worked readily or like over this summer, whether it was planting garlic last year or getting the beds ready, volunteer hours, things like that. It is a small group, but it is a dedicated group.

What do you grow?

  • lemongrass
  • chamomile
  • lemon balm
  • echinacea
  • garlic
  • cabbage (red)
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts
  • three varieties of kale

We try to go through the High Mowing catalogue together in the late winter and we start talking about what we want to grow and if we want to start from seed or buy starts. Which is really cool because we get to have this conversation while we are inside all winter long where there is not a lot to do outside.

We receive so much from the Giving Garden, so we try to grow around that”

What do you do with the produce?

Star Light Center uses the produce for lunches, and what we do not use for lunches members can take home. We plan our lunches based off of what we are harvesting. So just say we have a lot of cabbage, we will make some sauerkraut or something, which is actually what we are doing right now!

Can you recollect a favorite garden moment?

There are so many. Overall, the opportunities we have had to collaborate with other community gardeners is really important to our community at Star Light Center. We have had Allison Child come in and do a pickling workshop one year, Ellena came in for a pickling and sauerkraut workshop and again when we did a canning of tomatoes workshop. Those are the best moments because it brings in the community which may or may not know about Star Light and our members, and it brings them together where they can learn something new or share what they already had in common but did not know. I just want people to be aware and expand their thinking about where our food comes from.

Members are so excited about the garden”

How has it overall impacted Star Light Center?

Just being a part of the Community Garden of course has given us the chance to work with the Giving Garden. Most of our members, as I have said, are on a limited income and would not be able to purchase local, organic produce. That is one of the biggest takeaways and also this is another space for people to be at to feel connected to more of the earth and nature and to really understand the importance of hard work and where your food comes from.

Recently, Star Light Center has connected with First Churches of Northampton, Common Ground to have their Friday meals. Common Ground also has a plot at Grow Food Northampton’s Community Garden, to learn about their experience click here!

Community Gardeners are an important constituency at Grow Food Northampton, and we are grateful for their contributions to the strength of the local food system by getting their hands in our soil. 

The Community Garden is a very special part of Grow Food Northampton. It gives many residents of Northampton and nearby towns the ability to garden, whether or not they have land at home, are looking for a peaceful environment to spend time in, or are unable to afford starting their own garden. With increased accessibility to gardening at Grow Food Northampton, the benefits are endless; people are able to grow food to feed their families and garden with a sense of community.

This interview has been edited for length and/or clarity.

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