Post Office Workers Turn Empty Lawn Into Garden for the Needy

Sep 17, 2014

Terese Caldararo, Mike Caplan, and Bob Brown planted a garden at the main Post Office on the North Side, and donated all of the harvest to the local food pantry.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Mike Caplan and Terese Caldararo are walking through the rows of their garden, pointing out the different fruits, vegetables and herbs they planted this spring.

“We’ve got 25 tomato plants: Cherokee tomato, German Johnson’s, Rutgers. You name it we got it,” Caplan says. “And up front we’ve got peppers, bell peppers, and a lot of banana peppers."

“Different kinds of squash and zucchini: acorn squash, summer squash. We grew lettuce here. We had cilantro, we had parsley and rosemary,” Caldararo adds.

This isn’t in a backyard or even a community garden — it’s on patch of lawn at the U.S. Postal Service’s Processing and Distribution Center on the North Side.

Caplan and Caldararo are both custodians at the facility. As part of their jobs, they also maintain the grounds.

Caplan said last year, he and his co-workers planted a flower garden. At the end of the year, his supervisor was admiring the garden, and suggested that the next year, they plant vegetables too.

Caplan said the more he thought about it, the more he began to see the potential harvest an opportunity.

“The post office is getting such a bad rep these days, for just about everything,” Caplan said. “I said (to my supervisor), ‘Why don’t we donate (the vegetables) to the food bank? And he thought about it for a couple minutes, and he said, ‘We’re going to do that.’”

Joan Kimmel is co-owner of The Urban Gardener on the North Side, one of two drop-off locations for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Community Harvest program.

“Lately they’ve been showing up with four and five big boxes of fresh vegetables that were just harvested from their garden,” Kimmel said.

Northside Common Ministries Food Pantry manager Cynthia Brown said the homegrown tomatoes are always the first thing to go.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Local gardeners who have excess produce can drop it off at The Urban Gardener, and they’ll take it to the food pantry three blocks away at Northside Common Ministries.

Kimmel said the post office gardeners have increased the total donations “by about a hundred fold.”

“Unfortunately, it’s such a good program, the Community Harvest, and we’ve been a site for two years, and we’ve rarely gotten any contributions,” Kimmel said.

On a recent morning, the waiting room at the Northside Common Ministries food pantry was nearly full, as Jeannie Brown and a couple dozen other clients wait for their numbers to be called.

“I love to go into Giant Eagles,” Brown joked. “That’s what we call it, Giant Eagles.”

Brown said she depends on the food pantry to keep her kitchen stocked, especially when it comes to produce.

“You know, lettuce is going up (in price),” Brown said. “If you’ve got three or four kids, lettuce, $1.99? Wow.”

Jay Poliziani, the director at Northside Common Ministries, said the high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity among people with low income have a lot to do with access to nutritious food.

“Unfortunately, most of the products we are given to distribute tend to be boxed and canned and have lots of salts and lots of preservatives, so it really only continues to build that disparity,” Poliziani said.

Caldararo said maintaining the garden didn’t add any extra time onto their workday.

“In fact it probably saved us time,” Caldararo said. “At least an hour each time we came out."

Poliziani hopes other employers will take a cue from the post office and put open green space to good use.

“There is all this corporate land out there that could be used in a similar way, and it’s just sort of grass that’s growing, that people have to mow. It doesn’t benefit the community,” Poliziani said.

Terese Caldararo and Mike Caplan say next year, they’re hoping to start early enough to grow peas, onions, and garlic, and are also planning broccoli and cauliflower.

The peas, cauliflower and other new additions will surely be welcomed by the food pantry next year, but pantry manager Cynthia Washington said this year, those homegrown, heirloom tomatoes were always the first thing to go.