We sipped our steamy hot lattes and chatted leisurely in the quaint coffee shop- an hour or two of assisted dreaming. The new friend that sat across from me, a Registered Dietitian and professor at the school I long to attend in the future. We spoke of future goals for my career path and the stepping stones to achieve them. At one point the conversation steered in the direction of my current involvement in nutrition related volunteer led organizations- slim to none, busy with work and having not thought of the importance of such work to my future career. The first organization that came to mind, though, caught my attention sharply.
Second Harvest Food Bank- I’d completed volunteer work there in the past, teaching in the childhood nutrition education program and collecting donations for distribution to Orange County’s low income. I quickly got in contact with the program director and was background checked and signed up for my first event within days.
My schedule wasn’t abundant in free time so I chose a Tuesday afternoon working in their Incredible Edible Garden. The garden is a few acres of land located in the Great Park in Irvine where they plant, tend to and harvest produce that helps feeds the 349,000 low income and food insecure individuals in Orange County. Seasonally volunteers can help by planting seeds or smaller plants,picking weeds and harvesting broccoli, carrots, onions, strawberries, cabbage, chili peppers, green beans, watermelons as well as pumpkins.
Donning my most earthy purple flannel I pulled up to the garden that tuesday with the expectation of hoards of volunteers and an organized chaos – all of which there was not. Ashley greeted me as I parked and got straight to business, she gave me a quick summary of what the operation of the Garden looked like and how volunteers can help, also mentioning that most volunteers work in the morning hours- hence why no one was their to join me in the sweltering afternoon sun. The director handed me a knife and explained I’d be harvesting the Romaine lettuce that day and that their was a bit of a rush to get it picked- sitting in the sun would quickly cause it to wilt. Raul strolled up shortly after, carting with him barrels of sloshing water to wash the freshly picked produce in- a man of few words initially.
I was sent to the far end of the field with milk crates that I would fill and carry back to Raul who would then clean and prepare the Romaine back at the distribution center or one of Second Harvests, Farmer’s Market programs. A bit overwhelmed at the vast amount of Romaine to be harvested I went to it, letting Spotify be my whistle-while -I -worked. I initially stood and lifted the heads of lettuce from the soil, feeling soothed by the repetitive work of pulling, cutting the root and picking off bunny bitten leaves. As the minutes passed I slowly got into lower and lower positions of harvesting the leafy green bunches. It didn’t take long before I was covered in dirt and practically doing yoga poses in the soil. Eventually Raul walked over, wearing a smirk, he showed me how he sits on one milk crate and bends low, preventing the mud covered pants that I now wore. I tried his tactics for a few minutes and once again found myself sitting in with the lettuce, a cabbage patch kid romanced by the quiet afternoon, lady bug discoveries and a knowing that tables all over the county would be enjoying the lettuce that we harvested that day. A couple hours in Raul could see me slowing down and came to refresh me with stories of his past- initially from Mexico he’d moved to the states and been working in the farming setting since he’d moved here 20 years ago. He told me of the days when he’d first arrived in the state, working 12 hours and harvesting entire fields of celery- I felt weak at the thought. As I left that day Raul put his hands out cupping them in front of him, ” People show up at churches like this.” he said in his thick accent, ” and they leave like this.” He placed one of the heads we’d harvested that day into his worn hands. ” Good job today- 13 crates you filled.”
What a rewarding and affirming thing to say as I left, hands sore, pants muddy and heart full of love for people less fortunate. Serving others can be so fulfilling- a command of God given because he knows it’s good for us and our character. I’d highly recommend you finding your way to this farm. It’s a simple few hour commitment and you leave with the thick physical tiredness and knowledge that you helped fill some empty stomaches by providing nutrient rich food to people that may have had not a thing otherwise. I’ve already signed up for my next day of harvesting- excited by the thought of the dirt under my fingernails and the earth given gifts that will fill the crates that day.