BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — While many college students are still asleep, Lehigh University junior Katelyn Armbruster is up in the early morning hours weeding, watering and harvesting her garden.
From there, the 22-year-old drives to a place just blocks from campus but where few other students visit: New Bethany Ministries, the soup kitchen and social services agency on West Fourth Street in Bethlehem. New Bethany's food pantry is the sole beneficiary of Armbruster's harvest, which has totaled more than 700 pounds since she started in June.
Armbruster's crispy carrots, juicy tomatoes and fresh eggplants are a rarity at New Bethany, which like most food pantries is largely stocked with dry goods. Most vegetables are canned, though New Bethany warmly welcomes fresh produce when the organization can get it, Food Pantry Manager Fiona Byrne said.
"Fresh produce is so important in our diet — there is nothing more fabulous and wonderful," she said.
Fresh produce is especially important at New Bethany, where many of the 2,000 food pantry clients are diabetic, Byrne said. And many of the clients are very appreciative of the fresh vegetables, both Byrne and Armbruster said.
"Some of the women almost demand vegetables from me — they'll tell me how they used them for stir fries," said Armbruster, who often gets called "The Vegetable Lady" on her visits to New Bethany.
Armbruster owes her father for getting her interested in gardening.
When the Lower Nazareth Township resident was a student at Northampton Community College, her father, Roy, who is a plumber, built a bioswale to collect runoff water to irrigate the college's community gardens and encouraged her to get involved.
Armbruster then got a job as the assistant to NCC's gardening professor, and upon enrolling at Lehigh in January, got a similar job as the university's South Side Initiative community gardens coordinator.
Lehigh helps run community gardens at the Maze Garden and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ullman parks on the South Side and also hosts gardens of its own on Goodman Campus. Armbruster's adviser, political science associate professor Breena Holland, encouraged her to apply for a Lehigh experiential learning grant to take her gardening to the next level.
Extra produce from the community gardens is regularly donated to New Bethany, but Armbruster's efforts have been able to greatly increase that contribution, Holland said.
"She was sending me pictures over the summer — she was able to get so much," Holland said. "She really aggressively cared for her land. It takes a lot to grow that much food."
The $4,000 grant provided Armbruster with a summer job of sorts. She spent several weeks tilling her portion of Lehigh's community garden — a former cornfield — into suitable gardening space. From there, she planted rows of peppers, zucchini, broccoli, basil, Swiss chard and kale.
"It's something I really love to do, and it's a good job to have over the summer," Armbruster said. "Plus, I'm helping people."
She has unique purple pole beans — essentially purple green beans — from Austria. One of Armbruster's host mothers from the year she spent there after graduating from Nazareth Area High School in 2009 sent them to her. Both families she stayed with while on her Rotary exchange trip farmed, and they also are part of her inspiration.
Armbruster is a double major in environmental studies and global studies, and hopes to combine her interests in agriculture and travel into a career.
Her Lehigh grant requires a health education project component, so Armbruster includes recipe cards with her vegetable deliveries to New Bethany on how to cook the produce, some of it is foreign to the food pantry clientele. She said she was somewhat saddened to learn that the majority of New Bethany clients consider corn — which is a grain, not a vegetable — their favorite vegetable.
Armbruster plans to continue her New Bethany deliveries through the fall, but in the spring, she'll be returning to Austria to study abroad for the semester. She hopes another Lehigh student will be able to run her garden and continue to bring its yield to New Bethany.
"The number of people helped has been awesome," she said.
Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com