Porter plants seeds for long-term health with garden for homeless

MIDDLEBURY — A lot of healing takes place within the walls of Porter Medical Center. But tucked away on a small sliver of the Porter campus lies a resource designed to keep people from needing to tap into hospital services.
The resources in question are two gardens in which fresh vegetables are being planted, tended and eventually harvested for people looking for a healthy diet, and as essential nutrition for people who don’t have enough to eat.
The larger of the two gardens — approximately a half acre — is being maintained on the Porter campus by the Charter House Coalition, a Middlebury nonprofit that provides shelter and meals to those in need. The immaculately tilled plot’s bounty will find its way into soups, casseroles and other healthy dishes served up for those staying at the Charter House homeless shelter as well as for those attending the coalition’s regular community breakfasts, luncheons and suppers.
The smaller garden is divided into 16 mini-plots (each four feet by 20 feet) that are rented to community members for $30 for the summer, according to Ron Hallman, PMC’s vice president of development and public relations. This allows people without land to grow their own fresh vegetables.
“Porter is doing more for the community’s health than just delivering medical care,” Hallman said. “I think that these two activities, together, illustrate our efforts to contribute to the health and wellness of our community beyond acute health care services.”
It was as a member of the United Way of Addison County board that Hallman heard of the Charter House Coalition’s need for garden space. He learned the coalition has been operating a community garden on a third of an acre at the Nash Farm in New Haven, but has wanted access to additional gardening property in the event the Nash Farm land becomes unavailable. Organizers have also wanted to increase the current vegetable yield. That yield last year amounted to almost 5,000 pounds. The group and its Farm-to-Table Leadership Team also tend to a small plot adjacent to the Charter House off North Pleasant Street.
Knowing that the Porter Medical Center campus includes plenty of unused land, Hallman invited the coalition to establish a garden there. A few weeks ago, the Farm-to-Plate team, assisted by numerous Middlebury College students and other community helpers, turned up soil on the new plot.
“It is a quintessential small-town thing, where you hear about a problem, are able to address it on the spot, and the next thing you know you have a new homeless shelter garden at a hospital,” Hallman said. “It goes along with the whole, ‘We’re more than about just giving you medicine.’”
Indeed, Porter has a Healthy Food in Health Care Initiative that considers sustainable food options in purchasing decisions that support the local economy. Porter does business with such local enterprises as Maple Meadow Farm, Monument Farms, Cabot, Champlain Orchards, Vermont Family Farms, Boyden Beef, Bristol Bakery, Stonyfield Farm yogurt, Stonewood Farms, Stony Point Apiaries and Black River Produce.
Porter Hospital is also currently a member of the “Vermont Fresh Network,” which encourages farmers, food producers and chefs to build partnerships that contribute to stronger local communities and economies. The hospital offers outpatient nutritional counseling that helps people with healthy food choices, lifestyle changes, weight management, diabetes management, eating disorders and other nutritional needs.
Porter in June will host a farmers’ market to promote fresh/local/healthy food for its employees and the community at large. And Porter Medical Center received the annual “Governor’s Award” for worksite wellness earlier this spring.
Doug Sinclair is a leader of the Charter House Coalition, founded in 2005 in response to food and housing needs in Addison County. The group has a volunteer base of more than 750 community members contributing 23,000 hours of service every year.
Volunteers have already planted tomatoes, squash, beans and lettuce, with more crops to follow. Much of the produce will be frozen for use during the winter months. He said the Porter campus’s close proximity to Middlebury village will make maintenance and harvest activities much easier and less costly.
“It helps decrease our expenses year-round, and improves the quality of (the food) we can provide,” Sinclair said of the veggies.
Two Middlebury College interns will be coordinating garden activities this summer, according to Sinclair. The coalition is allowing eight students to stay at the Charter House for free throughout the summer as long as they volunteer at least 10 hours per week to coalition causes.
A lot of people and groups are pitching in. Last year, 115 volunteers contributed more than 625 hours in the gardens off North Pleasant Street and at Nash Farm.
“(Middlebury) Rotary Club has raised funds to provide a shed for housing garden supplies as well as a tiller, water tank, hoses and other supplies,” Sinclair said. “We are very grateful for that wonderful support.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Farm-to-Table program or in volunteering to work in the program’s gardens this season should contact Samantha Kachmar at 802-989-3108 or [email protected] or Doug Sinclair at 802-989-9746 or [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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