Grow, give, engage

Fletcher Garden Project Manager Ted Letherer volunteers to build a community around agriculture

Ted Letherer. *Photos by Nicole Davis

Community can be formed over food, beer or coffee, says Ted Letherer.

“I grew up in a farming community that was very centered around food,” said the Indianapolis resident. “Everyone had gardens and grew vegetables. There was a lot of community around harvesting, preserving, preparing and consuming all that food.”

Yet, Fletcher Place Community Center where he volunteers is on the edge of a large food desert. So, he helps to grow that needed food.

The community center, located at 1637 Prospect St., Indianapolis, serves the Southeast neighborhood with a mission to “break the cycle of poverty through hope, compassion and renewal.” The main focus is on immediate need, hunger and education, with programs such as hot meal days, a thrift store, food pantry and preschool.

“There are some pretty alarming numbers out of this community as far as education statistics and poverty statistics,” said Melissa Drew, executive director, of Greenwood. “We’re trying to provide programs and have partnerships that can help folks break that cycle, which in many cases is generations. That’s why one of our focuses is preschool and starting with 3, 4 year olds and getting them a foundation in education. We’re looking at partnerships with places like Southeast Services which can provide support to the parents while their kids are in preschool.”

A fundraiser, Culinary Collage, will be held July 16, 1 to 4 p.m. at the University of Indianapolis, Schwitzer Student Center. The event includes tastings from local restaurants, live animal show by Silly Safaris, a raffle, live and silent auctions. Cost is $15 at the door, or bring a $10 Kroger gift card. All of the proceeds go to community center programming.

One such program which started three years ago is the community garden. Letherer, a research technician for Dow Agro Sciences, heard about the efforts from a friend and immediately jumped on board, volunteering to manage the program.

“I learned quickly the first year that there is a huge difference between a backyard garden and something like this,” he said. “This space is about 2/10 of an acre. It’s small. But that leap was tremendous. We got volunteers helping.”

The first year, the focus was on soil building and growing the vegetables. The produce was taken to the community center, but there wasn’t a clear space where people could expect to find the fresh food. The second year, the focus was on giving. Volunteers created a vegetable stand where, after being harvested, the produce could be given to the community. This year, Letherer said their focus is on engagement.

“We’re growing, giving and engaging,” he said. “We have a nice sign up here so people can get information on when the veggie stand is. We’re trying to slowly ramp up Fletcher Place to be this food hub. We have the food pantry already. We have the garden. We’re trying to make it so people can donate their vegetables and we’ll have the infrastructure set up. We’re currently working on setting up what we’re calling a bodega, a small grocery store inside of the community center. Right now, it will all be free.”

Volunteers harvest the produce on Saturday mornings. The vegetable stand is open May through October on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” he said. “We just want people to eat more vegetables. But the target audience we’re growing them for are people who live within walking distance of this, don’t have reliable transportation and are resource limited. We are taking metrics to see if the food we’re giving out is going to people in this community and 90 percent of it is.”

Letherer said with an acre of urban space, someone should be able to produce 10,000 lbs. of food a season. With 2/10ths of an acre, Fletcher Place could potentially grow 2,000 lbs. of food. Last year, they gave away 600 lbs. of produce and are looking at having 1,500 lbs. this year – about 75 percent of its maximum capacity.

The garden went from 30 varieties of plants to 15 this year, allowing the volunteers to do succession planning and ensure that there is produce available each Saturday.

The garden invites discussion, which Letherer said is a community being built.

“Every time I’m out here, someone is walking down the street; they always express gratitude and say it looks good,” Letherer said. “It’s unsolicited appreciation for what we’re doing here. It’s not just an abandoned lot. It looks a lot prettier and more inviting. Plus people just like to see food growing, see agriculture and gardening. You hear stories and I talk to some kids who aren’t aware of where all the stuff comes from. It just shows up in the store. I think it’s empowering for them to see this. There’s an educational element to it. We provide a space. People can see, help and get their hands dirty. Then they can have that knowledge and skill-set to grow their own food.”

The Culinary Collage: Take a Bite Out of Poverty

When: July 16, 1 – 4 p.m.

Where: University of Indianapolis, Schwitzer Center