Chris Rosenblum | Boalsburg church finds ‘free-market’ solution to benefit State College food bank

October 19, 2013 

Fresh vegetables pulled the woman into Randolph Thomas’ front yard.

Off for a Wednesday morning walk, she hadn’t expected to encounter a stand in the Boalsburg neighborhood.

Best of all, the prices were hard to beat.

Thomas was giving everything away.

He always does for St. John’s United Church of Christ’s version of a farmers market.

Twice a week, to anyone interested, the church offers free semi-organic produce grown by Thomas and other members, as well as organic produce from a Huntingdon County community supported agriculture farm.

Donations are optional, but all proceeds benefit the State College Area Food Bank. Thomas expects the market to raise about $2,500 by the time its season ends on Nov. 10.

“We don’t want to compete with the Boalsburg Farmers Market,” Thomas said, referring to the Tuesday market held in the Pennsylvania Military Museum parking lot.

“There, people are doing it for a living, and we have a different objective. We just want people to have something good to eat.”

The market is open 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays in front of Thomas’ home at 121 Memorial Drive, and after 11:30 a.m. Sundays at St. John’s at 218 Church St. in Boalsburg.

Quantities and items vary from week to week. Now, for example, the market has plenty of fall broccoli and sweet potatoes.

But one never knows what will appear on the tables from the church gardens or Plowshare Produce in McAlevys Fort. Thomas’ daughter, visiting recently from Virginia, brought tomatoes, arugula, eggplants and Asian pears.

Whatever’s available, it’s always a first-come deal.

“I tell people the early bird gets the worm,” Thomas said.

He’s well-acquainted with those wriggling friends of gardens.

An avid greenthumb, he fell in love with gardening as a child growing up in Suffolk, Va., and helping his father tend a large plot.

Gardens linked different stages of his life: Fort Hood, Texas, while in the Army; graduate school in Raleigh, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., after going to Virginia Tech.

So naturally, after moving to Boalsburg in 1975 to teach civil engineering at Penn State, he continued growing vegetables.

“You do things you enjoy doing, and this is something I enjoy,” he said.

The roots of the free farmers market stretch back to a former St. John’s pastor, who encouraged his parishioners to bring in their garden surplus for the taking.

It lasted only a couple of years, but a seed had been planted.

Three years ago, Thomas agreed to help a church member who belonged to a CSA give garden-fresh vegetables to congregation members who needed them. On donated land, they started a garden outside of town, just off state Route 45 West.

After groundhogs and other invaders ravaged crops last year, Thomas hedged his bets with a second garden at his home for this season. His wife, Paige, lends her horticultural expertise.

“It takes a lot of hands to make it happen,” she said.

Out of the church’s community service mission came the food bank connection.

Learning how much the bank can buy with monetary contributions impressed church members. They decided to raise funds for the bank.

“It’s better for me to give $1 to the food bank than $1 worth of macaroni,” Thomas said.

The first two years, the market raised about $3,000, purely from donations. Then, as now, shoppers may pay anything they wish — or walk away with free produce.

Most people, Thomas said, give something.

“For every person who puts in $2, there’s always someone who puts in $15,” he said.

For no charge, Thomas takes special requests. He’ll find and deliver local produce — his “pick list” — for church members unable to get it easily on their own. He recalled one delivery for an elderly woman this summer.

“I bought 10 quarts of blueberries, gave them to her and said, ‘Make a donation Sunday morning,’ ” he said.

At the markets, he also hands out free advice, teaching people about cooking with unfamiliar vegetables and growing their own.

“I like to share some of the things I know, that I’ve learned over the years,” he said.

Next year, he plans on marketing the market better: more community flyers, an expanded email list. He’ll always welcome more volunteers like the 15 people who helped him plant in the spring and the fellow members who maintain and harvest gardens.

“In the long run, it’s a church project,” he said. “I just happen to be the one behind the tables.”

On a recent Wednesday, he reassured the accidental shopper who strolled in.

She chose a few vegetables but had no money. Guilt set in.

“I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Or the next time you walk by my house, put it in an envelope and stick it in my door,’ ” he recalled.

“People are honest. If they really can’t afford it, that’s OK.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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