It’s a 90-degree day in July, and 10 women are gathered in a garden, just like they are every Tuesday. A couple of children are playing with the water hose while their mothers and their friends harvest the garden.
Like many gardens in the area and across the country, this garden will harvest produce for a local food pantry. Unlike most of those gardens, the volunteers are part of the impoverished community the food pantry is designed to benefit.
Welcome to the Whitehall Peace and Community Garden.
As one of South Hills Interfaith Movement’s 15 gardens, the Whitehall garden is the only one not operated by traditional volunteers.
Half of the garden’s produce goes to the SHIM Family Center at Prospect Park pantry, while the other half is split evenly among the volunteers, most of whom live in Prospect Park, an apartment complex in Whitehall.
SHIM, a nonprofit organization that serves more than 4,000 individuals in the South Hills by providing clothing, food and services to those in need, started its garden initiative in 2012.
Becky Henninger, community gardens manager at SHIM, says they started the Whitehall garden in 2016 to better serve the high concentration of refugees that live in that area.
“Their proximity to the gardens is walkable; they’re about a mile away from the apartments they live in,” Henninger, a Mt. Lebanon resident, says. “Many of those people came from agrarian backgrounds, and they missed gardening. They were very excited about having the opportunity to get back into and bridge the gap between their old lives and their new lives.”
The women working in the Whitehall garden – like many of their Prospect Park neighbors – are mostly from Nepal or Myanmar, also known as Burma.
According to SHIM, 40 percent of the foreign-born and resettled population in the greater Pittsburgh area reside in the South Hills.
Januka Regmi, originally from eastern Nepal, leads the Whitehall garden’s 15 or so volunteers.
Regmi spent 19 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before coming to the United States and settling in the South Hills. Her son, who loves playing with the watering hose at the garden, is in second grade – the same age she was when she first entered the refugee camp.
“We have different types of gardens in Nepal than here in the United States,” Regmi says. “It’s a good place to come together and get a chance to talk.”
SHIM sprouted its first garden in 2012 at the SHIM Center in Bethel Park, partly to support the food pantry, and partly so they didn’t have so much grass to cut. Along with Henninger, Jim Stafford and Pat Eagon volunteered to build, plant and maintain the garden, which yielded more than 1,500 pounds of produce in 2012.
SHIM has added garden partners every year since, and thus increased its overall poundage. In 2016, the community gardens program provided approximately 12,000 pounds of produce across its 15 gardens.
“Working here is really rewarding just from the standpoint that nutrition is such a big thing for everyone,” Henninger says. “It bridges all divides in society, and I think gardening is something just about everybody can relate to. If you can provide rich produce, you’re not eating macaroni and cheese every night; you’re learning to cook something new.”
Some of the gardens are large, like the garden at St. Joan of Arc Church in South Park, where the parishioners have worked to provide more than 16,000 pounds of produce over the last four years. Others are small, like KinderCare of Mt. Lebanon, where the teachers and students harvest to provide about 75 pounds a year. In addition to the gardens, community members can drop off produce from their own gardens at the SHIM Center Tuesday mornings, Henninger says.
In total, more than 60 people volunteer in the gardens, which help feed about 2,600 across SHIM’s three food pantries.
“It’s very rewarding all the way around – to see the look on people’s faces when they see the fresh produce is heartwarming,” Henninger says.
Lynn Schrott of Mt. Lebanon has volunteered for the community gardens program for the last five years. She says her love for gardening, as well as being able to provide healthy food for people in need, is what attracted her to the program. “I’ve really enjoyed her perspective of the possibilities of growing good, healthy food,” Schrott says. “Often times with folks that access the food pantry there really just aren’t that many fresh fruits or vegetables, and it’s really gratifying to be able to help provide that.”
Schrott and her daughter originally started serving in the SHIM gardens when the Syrian Civil War began. “We came to the realization that we have refugees in our backyard,” she says. “We can start there and work to aide their lives to make them better.”
On this hot July day, the Whitehall Peace and Community Garden is having trouble with pesticides and disease among its produce. A community garden coordinator from Grow Pittsburgh is there to teach Januka and the other volunteers recognition and prevention best practices – Grow Pittsburgh helps facilitate gardens in urban areas and the organization helped to build the Whitehall garden.
The 30 raised garden beds were built on an asphalt parking lot behind the Whitehall Presbyterian Church. Three of the beds are specifically for the children in the after-school program, which provides them with gardening lessons.
The garden, which provided about 1,000 pounds of produce last year, contains plants that will consistently produce throughout the seasons and that is specific to the taste of the refugee community, Henninger says. Household names like lettuce, tomatoes and squash share the garden with mustard greens and hot peppers, both of which Henninger says the Prospect Park residents love.
Regmi says she heads the project to help the other volunteers and the community as a whole. “I want to help people,” Regmi says. “They come here and they need a leader to tell them what to do and how to do it.”
“Januka holds everything together here,” Henninger says. “She’s amazing.”
The Whitehall garden also serves as a place to build community for those within the garden.
“We wanted to do something that would give them more of a feeling of community,” Henninger says. “(We wanted) an area to congregate where they can go and sit and have lunch, and it’s an area where they can be community.”