Wearing a long sleeve shirt and a hat, Ciji Wagner crouches down, clipping off bright red peppers from long rows of plants. Not far away, Roanne Roberts, with gloves on her hands, leans over to pick more of these Italian sweet peppers and pile them up in a small green bin.
Hard at work in the August morning sun, these women were volunteering to help garden at the Central Texas Food Bank in South Austin.
This is an opportunity for folks to dig in the dirt beyond their own backyards while helping others.
More than 500 volunteers worked in the roughly 1-acre garden areas in 2018, says Amelia Long, director of community engagement with the food bank; about half of the garden site is used for food production, and elsewhere on the grounds, about half is used as a teaching garden, she says.
About 7,500 pounds of organic produce grown at the food bank garden was used for education and distribution to clients in 2018, Long says. Last year the garden grew a wide variety of crops, such as tomatoes, basil, asparagus, pears and more.
The food is grown “using organic practices,” says Greg Mast, a garden manager.
Roberts, 50, of Garfield, says she likes helping out and “doing something I really love to do.” Though she had previously volunteered in the kitchen at the food bank, this was her first time assisting outside in the garden, she says.
Wagner, 34, has been lending a hand in the garden, usually once a week, for about 1½ years, she says.
“I really enjoy seeing the process,” Wagner says, “from seed to harvest … to really understand how things grow.” Having moved to Austin from out of state, she says, “I have a garden. … I’m still trying to figure out how to keep things alive.”
As for volunteer jobs, Wagner says she enjoys harvesting because “you can see the literal fruit of your labor.”
Later, after taking a short break, Wagner and Roberts help plant kale seeds in flats.
“I already made a little dent (in the soil),” Mast explains, “You just drop the seed in.”
In addition, small artichokes are transplanted into larger containers.
Volunteers can assist with a range of tasks, which can accommodate different levels of physical ability, Mast says. Jobs can include harvesting produce, planting seeds, shoveling compost and cultivating garden beds. “The jobs change with the season,” Mast said.
As well, workers may use a variety of tools, such as shovels, pruners and garden forks.
“I don’t let volunteers use anything with a motor,” Mast says.
“You never really run out of things to do,” he says, even for those with no garden experience. “That’s fine. I’ll train them. …I try to break it down to the simplest tasks.”
And, of course, there’s always weeding.
“It can’t be the glamorous stuff all the time,” Wagner says, who doesn’t mind this mundane chore. “It takes the nitty gritty.”
A video on the website cautions that “garden volunteer shifts are outdoors and may be physically demanding. You may be exposed to sun, heat and cold, as well as biting, stinging insects and wildlife.”
Wearing appropriate clothing is important. “For your safety, we ask that you dress comfortably in closed-toe shoes, shirts with sleeves and long pants,” the video says; it also advises to bring such things as a wide-brimmed hat, work gloves, water and sunscreen.
“We recommend loose, sun-blocking, sweat-wicking clothing,” Long says.
Roberts, who didn’t wear long sleeves or a hat, says, “I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been."
In addition to growing food, the garden is used for educational programming, such as adult gardening classes.
“If you don’t want to volunteer with the manual labor,” Mast says, people can get involved with the garden education.
Volunteer shifts are from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays through Fridays, with up to 10 people each shift, Long says. The food bank can always use the help, year-round; the number of volunteers usually drops off in the summer, Mast says, but picks up in the fall and spring.
Those wishing to participate can sign up online, the site says. Some organizations, such as service groups and corporate groups, can also reserve shifts, Long says. Also, “the food bank offers opportunities for individuals to volunteer and fulfill court-appointed service hours,” the website says. All volunteers must be 15 years or older to work in the garden; volunteers ages 15 through 17 must be accompanied by an adult age 21 or older.
Unfortunately, the food bank has had difficulty with people who sign up but don’t show up, says volunteer engagement manager Emily Mares.
“We are in need of folks who like to do this work,” Mares says.
Nevertheless, “even if there’s just one person, we’re going to work,” Mast says.
“The garden is a small part of the total food distribution, but it gives people the opportunity to be involved in giving something that’s truly the very best we can provide,” Mast says. “It’s important to me that volunteers have a positive experience.”
As the morning shift ends, Mast thanks the volunteers for coming out to work.
“You have a great operation here,” Roberts says. “I’ll be seeing you next time. It’s very rewarding.”
For more information about volunteering in the garden, check centraltexasfoodbank.org.