The woman told Jonathan Lawler she had to choose between paying for her medication or her food. Every time she ran out of her monthly Social Security benefits, she resorted to buying cans of dog food — the only ones not marked “unsafe for human consumption” — from a nearby convenience store.
It was a story that spurred the founder of nonprofit Brandywine Creek Farms to seek out a way to help senior citizens facing poverty put food on their tables; this week, the farm announced a partnership with the AARP Indiana to do just that.
The AARP Education Garden, a 14-acre plot of land on the 77-acre farm at 5332 N. County Road 400E in Greenfield, is dedicated to cultivating food reserved for aging Hoosiers who might not be able to afford healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.
The garden will serve as part of Brandywine Creek Farms’ Still Growing Seniors program, which educates seniors about growing their own food while helping to provide them with fresh produce.
Seniors are encouraged to take part in planting and tending to the garden, but they are not required to do so in order to purchase or receive produce, Lawler said.
The latest effort is two-part; primarily, the garden will cultivate crops specifically for seniors who face poverty or are at risk of poor nutrition. AARP Indiana will work with the farm to identify Hoosiers in need.
Additionally, the program will offer opportunities to AARP volunteers both young and young at heart to help with the planting and harvesting, part of the AARP’s mission to keep aging citizens active.
Work on the garden has already started, and volunteers are invited to join the Lawlers for the inaugural planting day at 10 a.m. Saturday at the farm.
People of all ages are invited to help plant some 100,000 tomato plants and 75,000 pepper plants; if they don’t want to or can’t dig in, they’re welcome to tour the farm instead. About 15 AARP Indiana employees and volunteers have pledged to come and lend a hand on Saturday, communications director Jason Tomsci said.
The garden, in its first season, builds on an ongoing effort by the Lawler family to grow food for struggling Hoosier families. Lawler’s effort to create a local farm to feed the hungry began in fall 2015 when his son told him about the makeshift food pantry at Eastern Hancock High School. Students stock the pantry for peers who might otherwise not eat during weekends or breaks from school.
Lawler had a vision: he could turn his farm into a nonprofit effort, growing food to be donated to local food pantries to feed his neighbors struggling to put food on the table. Now, the produce grown at the rural Hancock County farm is split three ways — one-third is sold wholesale, one-third is sold at about half market price through a low-income access program, and the remaining third is donated to individuals, county food pantries and soup kitchens.
The first goods were harvested in 2015; today, the farm provides some 411,000 pounds of fresh produce and farm-fresh eggs to area agencies dedicated to feeding Central Indiana families.
Since launching, the farm has partnered with dozens of organizations and agencies across the region, including Hancock Regional Hospital and others.
Lawler said in the beginning, he had no idea how many Hoosiers struggle with food insecurity — or not knowing where their next meal will come from.
But it became clear to him and those working for the farm the first time they made a delivery directly to the people eating the produce, he said. They were shocked by the need — and the thankfulness — of the clients of Good Shepherd Lutheran Community, an organization providing food and other needs to seniors and people with disabilities. When Brandywine Creek Farms representatives arrived with fresh produce, about 70 people were lined up, waiting for their share.
“That outpouring of gratitude was a light-bulb moment for us,” Brandywine Creek Farms board member Keely Butrum said.
Nearly 15 percent of Indiana families don’t have regular access to nutritious and affordable food, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
One in 12 Hoosier seniors doesn’t know when they will eat their next meal, the Central Indiana Council on Aging adds.
Fixed incomes, unreliable transportation and medical problems can hinder seniors’ ability to purchase and prepare food on their own, the agency reports.
Linda Hart, executive director of Hancock County Senior Services, knows well the challenges many of the county’s aging residents.
She lauds any effort to make it easier for seniors to get the things they need, especially since many are hesitant to ask for a handout, she said.
“They are very unlikely to say, ‘I’m hungry. I need food,’” she said. “Part of it is pride, and part of it is they came from a generation where you just don’t walk around talking about your needs and what you don’t have.”
Giving seniors more access to nutritious food is a practical way to support them, Hart added.
Butrum said seniors often refuse to accept free food, and the low-income access program allows them to spread their food dollar farther while maintaining their dignity.
But perhaps more important is the farm’s status as a volunteer site, officials said.
Encouraging seniors to get out and stay active — even for just a brief volunteer project, like picking vegetables — has long been a part of Senior Services’ mission, and the garden at Brandywine Creek Farms complements that effort to keep seniors connected to their communities, she said.
“Once (seniors) get to where they cannot drive, their world actually becomes more and more narrow,” she said. “Isolation becomes a real issue.”
Lawler said working with national agencies like the AARP gives him hope that his project to provide food to the hungry could take off across the country.
“I believe diversified agriculture can feed everyone in this country,” he said. “The American farmer is the solution to end hunger.”