Kneeling over a row of tomatoes, Felicia Pylant gently pulled up weeds laced around the stems of plants. After an hour working beneath the early afternoon sun, sweat beaded on the woman’s forehead, and the garden’s dry soil coated her arms and legs.
“I’m a recovering addict, one year clean. It makes me feel good to be able to give back to the community that has helped me so much. I feel like, you do for others, good will come back on you. And looking out for one another, that’s just what we’re supposed to do as humans,” Pylant said.
As Pylant and a handful of volunteers weeded, hoed and tilled the Morgan County ground that two months ago sat overgrown with hay, E’dee Grun surveyed the land dubbed “10 Acres of Love.” If all goes according to plan, fresh tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, potatoes, okra and corn from the garden soon will fill bags distributed by the Feeding Families of Alabama food pantry.
“I have thought about a community garden for years,” said Grun, founder and director of the nonprofit outreach ministry Feeding Families of Alabama based in Hartselle. “In April, I prayed for the best, took a leap of faith and posted on Facebook asking if any of the local farmers had extra land we could use.”
Within 10 minutes, Grun received an offer of 10 acres from east Hartselle residents Vic and Anita Holt.
“They have given us free rein to plant whatever we want for as long as we want. This is such a blessing and will allow us to expand our services and better serve our families, many who are suffering from malnutrition,” Grun said.
For the past two years, Grun, while handing out thousands of bags of free groceries and serving up hot meals, saw firsthand the struggles facing north Alabama residents in need.
Started unofficially in the winter of 2016, the Feeding Families outreach ministry began accidentally when a family of four — a man, woman and two children under the age of 7, knocked on the door of Mt. Tabor Church in Hartselle, where Grun served as minister.
“The man had lost his job, missed one paycheck and they were homeless. They asked if I could spare some food for the babies. They didn’t ask for anything for themselves. They came back every night for several weeks. Eventually, the man got a job and an apartment,” Grun said.
Word of the church’s outreach spread. In the past two years, the ministry has grown from reaching 90 people to more than 300.
“It’s such a blessing to be part of this ministry. You definitely get more than you give,” said Roger Patton, who volunteers with Feeding Families.
During the most recent giveaway day on Monday, Feeding Families distributed food to 396 people and delivered items to two homeless camps. While most of the recipients come from Morgan County, some travel from Huntsville, Cullman, Limestone County, Florence and Joppa for assistance. They are single mothers working minimum-wage jobs, veterans, the working poor and grandparents raising grandchildren.
“I see new people every week, and some of the old ones fall off as they get back on their feet. That’s what we want to happen, but there will always be our permanent people. We have a lot of elderly and a lot of people with cancer who we will always serve,” Grun said. “Everyone needs a little help sometimes.”
Peering beyond the garden’s two beds to the trees, fence line and road bordering undeveloped land, Grun dreamed of the future.
“Next year, I want to get the whole 10 acres plowed. I’ve had some people tell me 10 acres is totally unnecessary. Well, they aren’t seeing the hundreds of people coming into the food pantry that are not getting enough food. I have to find a way to feed them. They are my reason for doing this. Ten acres is completely necessary,” she said.
Whether the garden succeeds or not depends on the community’s support.
“People ask me why I don’t just have food pantry families work in the garden for food. The people that can work will. It lets them retain some dignity, which is huge,” Grun said. “But everyone can’t work. We have people with cancer and people that are 85 and older. They aren’t able to get out here. That’s why it’s so important for the community to come together and help.”
Feeding Families has already received assistance from Turf Doctors, who added fertilizer and lime to the soil, donated a trailer with two water tanks and treated the garden for pests; the Guardians of Alabama motorcycle club, who donated 500 tomato plants; and the Southern Sentinels, who donated a tool shed.
Grun envisions using the land as a teaching garden, inviting schools to learn about the soil and holding classes for Feeding Families’ food pantry recipients on canning, preserving and freezing.
“People don’t know how to do that anymore. I grew up in the middle of the garden, toting five-gallon buckets across two acres to water tomatoes. There were five of us kids and daddy worked like a dog, but there just wasn’t a lot of money. We lived off our garden and ate beans and taters every night. If we were lucky, on Saturday, he’d go to the store and buy bologna. We thought that was great,” Grun said.
Along with providing nutritional value, Feeding Families created the garden as a way to connect the community.
“I would love for the community and food pantry people to come out here and work together, side by side. They will realize that we are all alike. It doesn’t matter how well off you are or how good your job is, you may be in the food pantry line one day. We all need each other,” Grun said.
Feeding Families of Alabama distributes food the first and third Monday of every month at Mt. Tabor Church, 373 Mount Tabor Road, Hartselle.
Other faith-based community gardens in North Alabama have been established by Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, First United Methodist Church and St. John’s Episcopal.