Growing fresh food for people in need

Three acres of unused land on the site of Automotive & Aerospace Coatings R&D operations in Troy, unemployment rates in the area greater than twenty percent, more than a third of the population living below the US poverty line and a dedicated ‘Green Team’… In fact, perfect circumstances which led to the creation of a vegetable garden on site where fresh food is grown for the poorest in the community.

The Troy lab ‘Green Team’ wanted to engage their hundred or so lab co-workers in sustainability.Most of their efforts had revolved around common office sustainability issues: paper reduction, recycling, efficient lighting, etc. The team wanted to engage in a project benefiting the community, but wasn’t sure what to do. ’One challenge was how we could involve as many employees as possible knowing that we’re all busy’, explained Don Paquet, one of the team members.

As one of the main problems for people in need in Michigan’s struggling cities is food scarcity, and especially fresh produce, the team decided to create a community garden. The Troy lab has plenty of unused open land in the back of the site that receives abundant sunshine. The plan was quite ambitious, but also very practical. It comprised a number of ideas that would have to be realized by the team. Employees would help construct the garden and tend to it during the growing season. The staff wouldn’t have to travel to volunteer and the tasks could be performed during lunch or just after work. Produce would be donated to Lighthouse of Oakland County, a long established non-profit organization, located less than a mile from the nearby Pontiac site that strives to assist families in crisis. The Troy lab has had ties to Lighthouse for over twenty years through personal volunteering and yearly food/clothing drives. As with most charities, they are in constant need of resources. A food bank is just one the many services they provide.

After some research on the Internet and making a few important choices, the Green Team designed a garden. To avoid potential soil contamination issues, vegetables would be grown in air-pruning fabric pots with commercial potting soil. Trellises were built from electrical conduit and netting material. Drip irrigation was used for watering. About one hundred pots of cucumbers, zucchini, beans, tomatoes and fifty feet of lettuce and spinach were planted in mid-May. Over thirty employees, including colleagues from Wood Finishes & Adhesives and other Performance Coatings businesses, donated their time during lunch throughout the summer.

As with all new ideas, there were some setbacks which are considered as learning experiences by the enthusiastic initiators: due to the unusually warm summer and an irrigation system that did not always work well, the spinach and lettuce never sprouted. The fence appeared to be too low for a deer that nearly eliminated the beans. A much taller fence solved this issue. In spite of these and other occurrences, over two hundred pounds of produce were dropped off to Lighthouse throughout the summer by employees on their way home from work weekly.

The fresh food was distributed to some of the more than 750 families who are assisted monthly by Lighthouse. ‘It was a terrific feeling, knowing that small efforts like pruning a few plants, when combined with other’s efforts, can lead to providing fresh food for those less fortunate’, said Don enthusiastically. The volunteers are determined to continue to support the community with their green fingers. Their intermediate plans are to improve their own gardening skills and expand on last year’s garden. Also they are considering partnering with their Pontiac colleagues and with other businesses in Pontiac to develop a true community garden in Pontiac where residents can grow their own food.