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Green beans grow up the stalks of sunflowers at Cornwall’s communtiy garden thanks to Shipp and Mullins. Photo by Riley Klein

Growing hope: Community gardeners give back

CORNWALL — What began as an outdoor pastime for Michelle Shipp and Chris Mullins has blossomed into a source of local, organic nutrition for food banks throughout the region.

Today, Cornwall’s community garden on Route 7 flourishes with green beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, peppers, and even sunflowers. But back in 2017, the couple began clearing weeds and planting seeds simply because they couldn’t find fresh salsa.

“We started here just to grow preppers so we could have our salsa that we like,” said Mullins. 

With no formal agriculture training (Shipp was a kindergarten teacher and Mullins was a mason by trade), the pair developed green thumbs after a few seasons in the garden. In 2020, they saw an opportunity to use this new hobby to help those struggling in their community during the pandemic.

“When the Covid came in, we were both working up at the ski lift and they closed it down, so we had all this time on our hands,” said Mullins. “Michelle saw online that the [Cornwall] food bank was serving like 10 times as many people as it had been. So we thought, ‘Well, we’re not working. Why don’t we just get out in the field and do something?’”

They sowed about 300 kale plants to start. Come harvest, they delivered them straight to the food banks.

“The most they would take in Cornwall was about 28 bags,” said Mullins, who brought the rest down to Friendly Hands Food Bank in Torrington. “Where they were like ‘Kale? Bring it in. We need this.’ And no matter how much we brought they would take it. To this day, you can’t bring enough.”

Friendly Hands, the largest food bank in Connecticut, serves more than 34,000 meals each month and has provided upwards of one million pounds of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy since May of 2020.

“They’ve got 6,000 people on their books, and that’s one of four food banks in Torrington,” said Mullins. “Plus a soup kitchen,” added Shipp.

Shipp and Mullins have also worked with Fish and Loaves in North Canaan, The Corner Food Pantry in Lakeville, and food banks in Kent, Warren, and Waterbury. They said the spike in demand for food that began during the pandemic has persisted, continuing to strain area food banks in 2023. 

“There’s no way that you could have too much,” said Mullins. 

“And that’s really where this project became two-forked,” said Shipp.

To better meet the need, the duo began picking up extra produce from farms, backyard gardeners, and other food banks in the region to keep shelves stocked wherever needed. 

“We’re kind of the transportation link to get produce from one place to another where it otherwise might rot. Besides what we grow, it’s just keeping stuff out of the trash,” said Shipp.

Shipp said she realized the need to branch into transportation after dropping off 50 pounds of tomatoes at Friendly Hands only to hear, “They’ll be gone by the morning.”

“That’s when I realized we cannot grow enough and the desire to provide more cannot come from us and our labor,” said Shipp on the idea to pick up and deliver extra food. “And this year it’s blossomed to the point that literally seven days a week we are either picking up, dropping off, or both.”

In August of 2023, Shipp said they delivered more than 1,000 pounds of food to food banks. 

“That’s not including those cucumbers,” added Mullins, referring to a load of cucumbers destined for Torrington. “The food rescue called us up because they had cucumbers for Torrington, but they didn’t have a driver. So I went down and picked up 2,000-pounds of cucumbers with the truck.”

Shipp and Mullins have come to call the effort “Produce to the People” and recently added a few much-needed volunteers to the team. The group is not affiliated with a nonprofit organization and has adopted the motto “Solidarity not Charity.”

“We’re not giving this from the top down, we’re moving it sideways because anyone can find themself in the same position,” said Mullins. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are, they all say, ‘feed the poor’.”

More community garden plots are open for cultivation and can be accessed by contacting Cornwall Agricultural Advisory Commission Chair Bill Dinneen at 860- 248-1543.

To volunteer with Shipp and Mullins or to learn how to donate produce, email produce2thepeople@gmail.com

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