Program helps locals get green thumb

CDT photo

The area behind the Food Bank of State College on South Atherton Street looked more like a miniature farm Friday than a parking lot.

It was full of broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, lettuce, tomato, squash and herb plants for food bank clients to plant in their own gardens.

Members of Penn State Master Gardeners, Centre County Office of Adult Services and Nutrition Links teamed up with the food bank for the annual Home Grown Project.

For the past five years, the event has helped a few hundred local families better understand the food they consume, master gardener Norman Knaub said.

“It’s a kind of a ‘how-to’ on gardening and nutrition,” he said.

And it meets the food bank’s mission to enhance services to clients in addition to distributing food.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve services to meet their needs,” said Carol Pioli, Food Bank of State College executive director.

Last year the program served about 30 families solely from State College, Knaub said. This year, people from across the county were invited.

Liam McTernan was excited to take home young plants for his family’s garden.

He said his favorite vegetables are tomatoes and cucumbers, as he pointed out the plants he wanted his mother to choose.

The 9-year-old enjoys making pancakes, but said he might switch to cooking omelets for breakfast — with vegetables his mother got at the event.

Liam and his mother, Kirsten McTernan, of State College, worked with Knaub, who gave the family gardening tips.

“This is our first year of gardening,” McTernan said. “We’re taking all the help we can get.”

The McTernans’ yard attracts a lot of rabbits, so Knaub suggested putting a 2-foot fence around individual plants to keep the animals away from the produce.

“It’s been helpful,” McTernan said. “We’re learning the basics and getting really practical tips.”

Knaub said that if first-time gardeners know the rules on spacing, watering and sun coverage, they’re golden.

“It takes a few quick pointers and they should be good to go,” he said.

However, Penn State Master Gardeners are available year-round to answer questions. They are gardening experts who provide education and outreach to individuals.

And with that gardening knowledge comes nutrition and recipe recommendations.

“We want to make sure they know the most about what they’re picking,” Penn State nutritionist Leoni Georgiou said.

She had a stand at the front of the garden area where guests could sample salsa, yogurt dip, whole-wheat pita chips and a snack pack made of nuts and whole-grain foods.

“It’s getting a really positive response,” Georgiou said. “It’s about eating right, teaching food safety ... and it surprises people when they see it tastes good and makes you feel good, too.”

But the main objective is to help those served by the food pantries to be more self-sustaining.

“It’s doing our part in educating and helping people prosper,” Pioli said.

Knaub donated two-thirds of the plants from his personal garden at his Centre Hall home to the event Friday. The rest came from other master gardeners or were purchased with money from the program.