Yoga Students Reach Out to Food Pantries

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Many Columbus food pantries offer fresh produce to those in need. The challenge is often keeping a steady supply of the fruits and vegetables. At a South Champion Avenue pantry, crates of fruits and vegetables come courtesy of some special karma.

It’s Tuesday afternoon and Cindy Cooper drops a couple of fresh zucchini into a plastic bag. She picks out some squash to go with it and peruses the other vegetables.

No, Cooper’s not at the supermarket. She’s on the city’s east side at Lutheran Social Services food pantry.

“I grew up on fresh food and fresh vegetables, actually. And I think it’s a great thing because you get more nutrients out of it than you would out of a can or frozen,” Cooper said.

The food pantry, on South Champion Avenue, is set up like a grocery store. Clients grab carts and make their way through a couple of aisles, stocking up on canned, boxed and frozen goods. Crates of fresh vegetables…tomatoes, turnip greens, summer squashes, green beans…lots of peaches, are stacked on a table and the floor.

Volunteers heavily market the fresh food.

“Look at how pretty this is, little cabbages, you can have half a box!”

Some clients decline the vegetables saying their children will not eat them. But others, like Denise Suber, welcome the opportunity to get some fresh produce.

“I’m going to select the peaches and the greens and that’s about it,” she said.

The greens are so large Suber has to fold them in half to get them into the plastic grocery sacks.

Earlier in the day, on the other side of town, a group volunteers work in a garden that’s about a quarter-acre in size. The volunteers are students from Yoga on High in the Short North. They’re harvesting the vegetables that Cooper and Suber took home to their families from the food pantry.

“There’s nothing on anything like this…it’s just a pull right?”

Judi Stillwell collects the last of the cabbages.

“I learned you tear off the outer sort of buggy leaves, then it looks pretty appetizing,” she said.

This project is Stillwell’s first attempt at gardening.

“I didn’t like getting sweaty. I didn’t like dirt. And I didn’t like bugs. And I didn’t like snakes,” Stillwell noted. But when she heard what Yoga on High owner Marsha Miller wanted to do Stillwell thought she’d give it a go. Miller, whose husband is an organic farmer, had some extra land. Miller recruited her yoga students to grow vegetables for donation to food pantries. “When I first put it out I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to commit to it; and so I thought, well, if there’s enough interest I’ll do it,” Miller said.

And there was lots of interest. More than 100 people signed up to help.

“In some way or another those 100 people have contributed. Some, as the group you’ve talked to here today, by being here present. Some have contributed money. Some have contributed seeds, boxes, made contacts for us in ways that made our work easier. One of them found a store that would give us a big discount so we could buy some of the supplies we needed. So it’s been a real, a real group effort,” she said.

Miller said many people are familiar with Hatha yoga which is the physical side of yoga. But she said there’s another aspect to the practice called karma yoga, which is selfless service. Miller said the undertaking was named the Anahata Food Project.

“In Sanskrit, anahata refers to the heart’s center. So when we were thinking of naming this project the fact that we’re offering this work from our hearts seemed really appropriate,” Miller said.

The group has harvested more than 1,000 pounds of produce between their spring and summer crops. And on this day they’re already planting some fall vegetables.

Carl Janiak breaks up the ground where cabbages had grown. Collard greens will take their place.

While the project gives the volunteers a chance to socialize and spend time outdoors, it has, for some, had a lasting impact. Janiak recalled a time when he dropped off some produce at a food pantry.

“I remember walking in with a big bag of lettuce, and this woman who already had her stuff saw me walking in to deliver the lettuce and her eyes got like quarters. And she says, is that fresh lettuce? Is it good?’ I said, yeah.’ She goes, I’ll be right back.’ She drove off to dump her stuff at home and come back and get some more. So that was the kind of reaction that I like to hear, being able to get wonderful fresh food,” he said.

Back at the Lutheran Social Services food pantry David Drumm, the manager, said they always offer fresh fruits and vegetables – and much of it comes from community efforts like the Anahata Food Project.

“We’re getting plenty of greens and tomatoes and we’re getting the peaches. So that’s a seasonal type of thing. So in another month or so we’ll get more potatoes, we’ll be seeing apples starting to come through and bananas,” Drumm said.

Drumm said collard greens are among the most sought after fresh veggies.

“They very rarely get warm if you know what I mean. Soon as they get in there they’re gone. And my philosophy was I would rather give it away than throw it away. So I let the clients take as much of the vegetables and fruits as they can use,” he said.

Yoga on High’s Marsha Miller said the Anahata Food Project has proved so successful the group plans to continue it next year.