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Fresh Produce a 'Treat' for Recipients

Meals on Wheels delivers fresh vegetables from 'giving gardens' to low-income seniors

Judy Russell delivers Meals on Wheels in the Cincinnati area, AARP Ohio giving gardens

Meg Roussos

Judy Russell delivers Meals on Wheels in the Cincinnati area. Last summer, along with the prepared meals, she was able to provide some fresh produce from "giving gardens" tended by AARP Ohio volunteers.

Louise Coulter, 76, was never a big fan of vegetables. But the fresh-picked tomatoes and green beans she received last year from a Cincinnati community garden were "a real treat," she said.

"I hope when they get some more tomatoes in, they'll think of me."

The ripe produce was dropped off to Coulter at her apartment in the Evanston, a high-rise in Cincinnati for low-income older adults, as part of her Meals on Wheels delivery.

Meals on Wheels donation
All the produce grown in AARP Ohio-sponsored beds in three community gardens was donated to Wesley Community Services, a nonprofit that operates Meals on Wheels in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

As a result, low-income older people received fresh vegetables along with Meals on Wheels' prepared lunches and dinners.

In addition to continuing the three "giving gardens" started last year, AARP Ohio hopes community gardens in other locations will set aside similar plots this year.

And as backyard gardeners pore over seed catalogs to decide which veggies to plant come spring, "plant extra seeds and give the surplus produce to your neighbor, your church pantry or a local Meals on Wheels program," said Kevin Craiglow, AARP Ohio associate director.

Wesley, for instance, relishes receiving the extra tomatoes, beans, zucchini and other summertime produce, said its chief operations officer, Stephen Smookler.

Three "giving gardens" were started last spring in Cincinnati's Walnut Hills, College Hill and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. Sponsored by AARP Ohio, the beds are tended by volunteers from AARP and the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati (CGC).

The program was the brainchild of AARP volunteer LaDonna Pope, 55, who started the first giving garden at Walnut Hills last year.

"It's a win-win for volunteers to help the community and for the people who receive the harvest," she said.

Next page: Tasks for non-gardeners and how you can help. »

Getting the vegetable gardens established was especially challenging last year because of the drought, record high temperatures, groundhogs and a fire.

The Walnut Hills garden was attacked by groundhogs; this year volunteers will cover the plants with mesh and install fencing.

AARP's beds in the Over-the-Rhine garden were destroyed July 4 when they were ignited by fireworks. But everyone involved is ready to get started again this year.

Craiglow said AARP Ohio hopes to expand the giving garden project to an additional two to four gardens this year if there's enough community and volunteer interest.

Anyone interested in gardening or learning how to raise vegetables is welcome, Craiglow said. Not every volunteer needs a green thumb.

Tasks for non-gardeners
For instance, in Cincinnati and Dayton, where a garden with four beds was established last summer, jobs will include picking the produce, coordinating pickups, cleaning and sorting vegetables as they are harvested, and delivering the produce to Wesley for distribution.

Project coordinators also will be needed for the new locations.

"Just like a newly planted seed, the giving gardens require some time and nurturing," Craiglow said. "But, oh, what a gift. I've never seen such an appreciation for a tomato."

Judy Russell, 55, of Cheviot, the Meals on Wheels driver on the Evanston route, agreed.

"It's wonderful for these people. They don't get out to the grocery store for themselves. It means a lot to them," she said.

Ted Turner, 81, a resident at the Evanston, said he greatly appreciated the cabbage, greens, tomatoes and bell peppers he received. "I do like fresh vegetables."

For information about volunteering at gardens in Cincinnati and Dayton, call 866-389-5653 toll-free or email

Phyllis Codling McLaughlin is a writer in Milton, Ky.

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