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St. Anthony Food Pantry plants seeds to help clients succeed

Angie Mueller, a volunteer from Christ Prince of Peace Parish, handed Tony Robertson a tomato plant with an instruction sheet, two strips of cloth to tie up the plant and a bag of fertilizer.

Robertson didn't need the instructions because St. Anthony Food Pantry staff taught him container gardening last year. "It worked out real good," Robertson said. "I got a bunch of tomatoes" -- so many that he gave some to his sister and mother.

His only question was how to keep insects off the plant. Franciscan Sister Connie Probst, director of the food pantry, offered several suggestions, including the use of cayenne pepper, which also keeps squirrels away.

A line of people waited May 4 outside St. Anthony Food Pantry at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in south St. Louis, where food, clothing, utility assistance and much more is provided to people in need from the neighborhood three days a week.

The food pantry associated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul began something new five years ago -- teaching clients how to maintain container gardens.

Staff and volunteers nurture vegetable seeds into mature plants, which are given to clients for home-grown produce.

"I just love my plants," said Evelyn Manley of the tomato and basil plants. Manley, her daughter Tayon and Evelyn's sister, Lanedria Atkins, love fried green tomatoes and even have "secret recipes."

The process starts in late February when staff and volunteers plant seedlings in a small greenhouse and elsewhere and later transfer them to pots in the backyard of the Franciscan friars' building, taking up about a third of the yard.

The garden on Franciscan property prompted the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Help to coin the slogan, "The tomatoes aren't fire red, they're friar-bred."

They use "black gold" mulch provided by the City of St. Louis mixed with potting soil. A volunteer, Ben Hawickhorst, collects containers from Kirkwood Materials that otherwise would be placed in a dumpster for recycling. Container gardening was chosen because many renters don't have space or permission to dig in-ground gardens.

"There's two more," Sister Connie shouted as she pointed out tomatoes on one of the plants.

"There's five tomatoes right here on one plant," said a volunteer, Wanda Mitchell. "These plants are going to town."

The pantry is handing out tomato plants now, and later they'll distribute pepper and basil plants, which grow more slowly and still need to be re-potted. The pantry workers tried zucchini and cucumbers, but the plants didn't grow well in containers.

According to Sister Connie, the philosophy behind the program is based on the proverbial saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

The project has grown every year after a mixed reception the first year. The program served about 500 families last year and is expected to serve at least 550 families this year with about 1,500 plants. The program received a 2015 Earth Day Action Grant from the St. Louis Earth Day organization.

On an unseasonably warm early May morning, volunteer Obie Anthony used a hose to water each plant in the yard. He likes to sing Gospel songs to the plants, and on this day sang "This is the way we water our flowers, water our flowers, water our flowers ... so early in the morning" to the tune of "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."

Based on a study by students at nearby St. Cecilia School, the plants like classical music the best, though Anthony's songs seem to work fine, too.

Three things are essential to the plants -- "water, sunshine and fertilizer," Sister Connie said, adding with a laugh that they need to be cared for "just like humans."

One woman told Sister Connie that the tomato plants helped her cope with her son's suicide. The woman prayed while caring for them.

"The plants feed people's souls when they find that they are able to grow them," Sister Connie said.

Another man grew so many tomatoes that he gave away the extras to people coming to Masses at the church.

"People will show us how well the plants are doing," Sister Connie said. "They get so excited knowing they are able to do this. By the end of March, they're already asking, 'When do we get the tomatoes?'"

Contact information

The food pantry at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in South St. Louis succeeds with donations and volunteer labor of parishioners across the archdiocese. For information or to contribute, write or call:

St. Anthony Food Pantry

3140 South Meramec

St. Louis, Mo. 63118

(314) 352-1460 

Moving out of poverty

Teaching clients container gardening is just one way St. Anthony Food Pantry staff and volunteers build confidence and encourage people to help themselves.

Job readiness and referral is another way.

Sister Connie Probst, director of the pantry, compared poverty to a computer with too many programs open.

"The computer slows up. You're trying to do upteen things at one time. And guess what? You can't get anything done. That's what the poor face every day. That's why they can't keep appointments. They're stressed out to the max. They're trying to juggle 30 things at one time."

She calls it "poverty bandwidth." Food is seen as the way to reach people and help stabilize their situation. They often are helped to look at the factors underlying their crises. Many then get jobs or an education and move on.

Many of the woman have been emotionally, mentally or physically abused. St. Anthony's refers them to the Women's Place program for an eight-week session to understand the effect of abuse on their lives.

The pantry operates with donations from parishes, groups and individuals as well as the 80 volunteers who assist the pantry each week.

The St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Anthony was founded in 1864, just three years after the church was founded. The pantry started around 1995 and became a special works of the parish conference in 2006. Utility assistance also is provided by the conference.

Sister Connie, a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is assisted by Sister Marie Orf, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood.

Sister Connie is a registered nurse, has a master's in social work and is a community organizer. Sister Marie, who has a teaching degree and master's in educational administration, served at a parish on the DePaul University campus in Chicago for many years working with low-income people.

The pantry has several deep freezers and areas for clothing, personal care items, personal interviews and a classroom for presentations on nutrition, budgeting and similar topics. A lawyer from Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry visits once a month to provide legal help to clients.

The pantry has Wednesday evening hours to better serve people who work during the day.

Without the support of the parish and the friars, the pantry would be hard to sustain, Sister Connie said. 

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