When disaster strikes, members of St. Philip's Lutheran Church scramble to help. Volunteers have trekked to sites from the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to the flooded river towns of North Dakota.

But this summer, a small group of volunteers concentrated on a different sort of disaster.

It wasn't the howl of hurricane-force winds on far-flung beaches that fueled their mission. It was the rumble of empty tummies in their own neighborhood.

Members of the Fridley congregation planted a community garden and are donating nearly all of the harvest to two local food banks. The garden stems from an innovative collaboration with Anoka County Community Health and Environmental Services and a nonprofit foundation.

"It fits in with the sort of work our church does," said St. Philip's volunteer Julie Kosbab. "Hunger is a form of disaster at home."

So far, the volunteers have grown and donated 300 pounds of produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, snow peas and squash. With dozens of watermelons, honeydew, squash and pumpkins still ripening on the vine, they anticipate the total exceeding 500 pounds by season's end.

Kosbab said they know of the acute need for fresh produce at local food shelves. "Food shelves serve a very important purpose, but sometimes what you get in the bag, it's not the most balanced diet you will ever encounter. There are a lot of noodles," Kosbab said.

First-time partnership

This is the first time Anoka County has partnered with a church and a private foundation to establish a community garden. The church provided the small plot of land and the manpower. The Otto Bremer Foundation provided $12,500 in seed money. Anoka County staff helped the church acquire the grant, establish the garden and track results.

The congregation also helped establish a vegetable garden at Stepping Stone Emergency Housing in Anoka with the grant money.

The long-range vision is to inspire other churches and faith-based groups to plant community gardens and donate proceeds.

"We always encourage people in the congregation to use their skills and do some dreaming on what they'd like to do to help their community," said the Rev. Jan Hartsook, St. Philip's associate pastor. "We have lots of space here. They love to garden, and that's one way they could do something marvelous for the community."

It isn't just about helping those in need. Inspired by their success at church, the hope is volunteers will use their new skills to plant or expand gardens in their own backyards.

"We have found that individuals that work in the garden, they themselves increased their personal consumption of fruits and vegetables by 2 1/2 servings per day," said Carla Pederson, health education coordinator with Anoka County Health and Environmental Services.

Using unused space

It's early evening and Kosbab, one of a handful of church women on the garden committee, tiptoes through the tangle of vines and leaves, checking watermelons and eggplants. The garden is planted in a sunny corner between the church's playground and the original chapel. It's inside a chain-link fence, which helps keep out rabbits and deer.

"It was really unused space," Kosbab said.

Its proximity to the playground has helped spur some additional interest in the project. "A lot of volunteers bring their children. The children start out on the playground and they migrate to the garden because they want to know what mom is doing." Pederson said. "It's been a wonderful learning experience."

To ensure success their first year and make the plot more accessible to people with disabilities, volunteers built four large planting boxes and hauled in soil to establish the garden. They also used a large existing planter to grow herbs and tomatoes.

"Our tomatoes have been superstars, as have our cucumbers. And our squash has done well," Kosbab said.

Volunteers planted a wide variety of vegetables to cater to all palates and cuisines. The fresh food flies off the shelves, said Clare Brumback, director of development for the Community Emergency Assistance Program, or CEAP.

Brumback said they now receive regular donations from four or five community gardens.

"It's been fantastic. It's been really appreciated by our families," Brumback said. "It used to be a touch-and-go thing. Now, with the explosion of community gardens, we've gotten much more in quantity."

Each week, CEAP helps feed 75 to 100 families in northern Hennepin and Anoka counties. They rely on a combination of food donations and purchased food to meet the demand. Receiving more fresh food donations helps stretch dollars.

"Having fresh vegetables is so important, not just for nourishment of the body but nourishment of the soul," Brumback said. "It's building community and knowing someone cared about you and they grew these for you."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.