The Eastern Shore of Virginia is peppered with farms and waterways. But despite the Shore's predominantly agrarian landscape, a startling proportion of its 45,000 residents don't have enough to eat. According to the Foodbank's Eastern Shore Branch Manager Charmin Horton, an estimated 14,000 people on the Shore are served annually by the Foodbank of Southeast Virginia and the Eastern Shore.
Facing this challenge, local groups have taken action to assist struggling Shore residents. St. George's Episcopal Parish (founded in Pungoteague in 1652 and considered the third Anglican church in the New World) together with its partner congregation St. James Episcopal Church in Accomac formed the Dos Santos Food Pantry Garden to grow fresh produce for those in need.
"We created the Dos Santos Food Pantry Garden out of a desire to feed our pantry clients fresh produce," Dos Santos Food Pantry Director Angelica Garcia-Randle explains.
"We chose to name the pantry in Spanish as an indication of our primary objective—to assist migrant farmworkers and Latino immigrants on the Eastern Shore of Virginia by offering a resource where Spanish is spoken to clients and where food central to the Latino community is consistently offered," Garcia-Randle says. “Most of our pantry clients cannot afford to purchase fresh produce—even though a majority of them are harvesting in the fields. This seems ironic and unjust; a wrong that we could help make right." To that end, the pantry serves about 150 people per month and growing in an effort fully funded by donations. "We have a marvelous network of volunteers who help with maintenance, upkeep, harvest, and distribution," Garcia-Randle says.
Besides benefiting the community through the blessings of food distribution, the garden is also a model for how to grow food while minimizing damage to our Eastern Shore waterways. Hard impervious surfaces do not allow rain to soak into the ground, instead washing pollutants into local waters. But gardens allow water to soak into the soil, reducing damage by cutting the speed and amount of polluted runoff.
With such an interconnected relationship to our waterways here on the Shore, a sense of stewardship for the land and water is inherent within the Church's faith philosophy. "Our Episcopal/Anglican ethos is very much centered on a respect for all God's creation and a proactive sense of stewardship accountability for environmental resources," says Reverend Cameron Randle, rector of St. George's Parish. Quite literally practicing what he preaches, the garden at St. George's strives to incorporate environmentally friendly growing techniques.
After receiving soil test results from the local Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Dos Santos understood the nutrient needs of its soil, applying to the land only what was necessary—an important step that keeps excess fertilizer from polluting our local waterways. Often times, additional or improperly applied fertilizer washes into rivers and creeks creating harmful algal blooms, which in turn form dead zones that reduce underwater habitat and harm fisheries.
The Dos Santos Garden minimizes polluted runoff with gentle watering techniques such as drip irrigation and rain barrel use, and utilizes organic pest management strategies. It also composts waste, mulches the garden to reduce exposed soil, and plants a host of biodiverse crops. And the garden's bounty is right across the lawn from the food pantry, cutting the distance the food travels and reducing the amount of gas burned.
Reverend Randle is steadfast in his belief that the gospel message of unconditional love and hospitality extends to all manifestations of God's creation—the human and animal, the skies, earth, and waters. He explains that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer includes a prayer asking God to "give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty." Through community outreach, enhancing local food security, and providing ample blessings to others while being mindful of impacts on the environment, the volunteers for the Dos Santos Community Garden are happy to get their hands dirty in the name of caring for creation.
—Tatum Ford, CBF's Virginia Eastern Shore Outreach Coordinator