Alice McEwen straightened up from the broad ribbon of arugula she was harvesting and carried a third tub of greens to the garden's edge. Before the morning is over, she might bring in some pumpkins, as well. They'd be needed for the salmon risotto with pumpkin and sage. Or maybe she'd pick some kale for the curried chicken thighs.

"A little clean dirt never hurt anyone," she said, content with the condition of her fingernails.

McEwen, of Eden Prairie, retired three years ago after a career as an IT specialist. Now she spends a morning or two a week somewhere on Open Farms -- three acres of vegetables growing on the west edge of Belle Plaine.

The produce, most of it planted, tended and harvested by volunteers, is driven (by volunteers) to Open Arms of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where it's used in meals prepared (mostly by volunteers) and delivered (you guessed it) to people living with multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, HIV or AIDS, cancer and dozens of other diseases.

Open Arms has been delivering meals to people with life-threatening illnesses for more than 20 years, but last year began growing its own organic produce. The idea was to gain a little more control over their ingredients (while granting that "control" remains one of farming's more futile pursuits). Organizers soon discovered that they had tapped into another movement: people who want to play a role in providing food for others while sharpening their own gardening skills.

"There's a great network of people who just like to garden," said Ben Penner, the farm's director. "We're focused on produce, but this also is a chance to be a part of something that has an immediate and tangible effect. We're really harnessing the energy of people interacting with food."

Growing for health

Open Farms is plowing a fresh furrow in the healing community, harvesting about 21,000 pounds of produce last year, and expecting to bring close to 30,000 pounds into its kitchen at 2500 Bloomington Av. S. by the end of the season, said Susan Pagani, Open Arms' communications director.

Numbers reveal the need: Open Arms will cook and deliver more than 460,000 meals this year to ill people who for reasons not necessarily related to income struggle to maintain a healthy, healing, diet. They do this with the help of more than 1,900 volunteers in a variety of jobs. Pagani said someone calculated that the 52,000 hours donated each year were equal to having 25 full-time staffers.

Menus are designed to meet various needs and preferences, such as vegan, gluten-free, heart-healthy, kidney-sensitive, Latino, East African -- even kid-friendly. While a week's worth of most entrees is delivered frozen, Pagani said they include fresh produce as often as possible.

This summer, Penner figures, about 500 volunteers have been out to the farm, laying down mulch cloth, building hoop frames, weeding beans, picking cucumbers and, not incidentally, picking up some skills.

McEwen said she used to grow only tomatoes in pots, but now has all sorts of produce thriving on her deck at home. "I've learned about soil blocks, these neat little contraptions to get the plants started," she said. But the knowledge is a bonus for what she'd be doing anyway.

Year-round effort

"It's the standard Minnesota ethic," she said. "You volunteer because people have volunteered to help you in the past, whether at church, or for scouting, or a festival. Growing food for people with health problems, you see what they go through and know that you might need the same someday. It's a pay-it-forward thing."

Marcie Wallace of Minneapolis is similarly motivated by the tangible nature of the work.

"When you deliver a meal, or make a whole soup, or help pick 500 pounds of onions, you feel that you've actually done something to make a dent," she said. "I want to live in a country that doesn't help just corporate entrepreneurs, but nonprofit entrepreneurs, as well."

Penner said there's always a need for volunteers, even this winter when at some point they'll be starting seeds for next spring. That, in turn, will lead to next summer's most coveted task.

"Harvesting basil is, hands down, the best job on the farm," he said.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Open Farms, visit and click on "Volunteer," then "Grow meals."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185