What started as a labor of love for Linda Santos has blossomed into a community effort that has yielded more than 5,000 pounds of food for local people in-need this year.

Started by Linda Santos (above) and entirely run by volunteers, the Living in Love Food Pantry Garden has produced more than 5,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables in 2020, with everything going to organizations that feed people in need.

In its fourth season, the Living in Love Food Pantry Garden at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church features rows of blueberries, tomatoes, collards, kale, green beans, peppers and peas on a plot so large it takes up much of the church’s backyard at the intersection of Princeton Pike and Allen Lane. Wood chips—donated by local landscapers who have cut down trees in the area—rest in giant heaps in the church’s side parking lot, ready to be used for weed control and for portions of the garden floor.

Since the garden began in 2017, Santos and other volunteers have harvested 14,434 pounds of fruits and vegetables from their garden. Together, the haul weighs more than seven tons, or the equivalent of two pickup trucks.

2020 has been its biggest season yet, both in terms of production and in the number of people volunteering to make it happen. About 50 volunteers have helped Santos harvest 5,025 pounds of crops this year. Among the yields have been 1,495 pounds of tomatoes and 1,962 pounds of blueberries.

Living in Love is a food pantry garden, meaning everything harvested is donated. Santos has worked with at least a dozen organizations since 2017, including the Lawrence Community Center, HomeFront, Meals on Wheels of Mercer County and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.

It started in 2016 when Santos, a longtime member of the congregation at Holy Trinity, noticed the church wasn’t doing much with its large yard. Santos has a degree in plant science from Cornell University and experience in commercial agriculture. She also had a desire to do more volunteer work, with her children off to college. She thought there might be an opportunity to put all three together.

She pitched to church vicar Shawn Davis the idea of a church garden where everything grown would be donated.

With the go-ahead from Davis, Santos sat down at the Lawrence Community Center with center director Brian Helmuth, and had a conversation about what needs he saw in the community. Helmuth said he had recently had a conversation with Mercer County food pantries where they said they were in dire need of fresh produce.

Santos had all the confirmation she needed, and started planning the garden with the goal of a first crop in 2017.

Linda Santos dumps wood chips into the Living in Love Food Pantry Garden.

The rest of 2016 served as a preparation year. Knowing the area had groundhogs, deer and other wildlife that would nibble at the plants, Santos mapped out an area for a fence, taking into account future growth. Living in Love Garden still doesn’t use all the land Santos fenced, but has begun to grow into it.

The first season, in 2017, Santos planted blueberries, collards and tomatoes. She also bought a scale as a joke, saying she would grow a ton of produce that year. She didn’t expect her prediction to come true, but she wound up harvesting 3,073 pounds—about a ton and a half. There was even more that Santos couldn’t harvest and didn’t weigh that year, due to a lack of volunteers.

The garden has grown each year from there. While Santos experiments with new kinds of plants every year—2020 was spinach, mustard, peas and broccoli—the garden has been remarkably consistent, yielding more than a ton of produce every year.

A lot of yield also means a lot of work.

Santos has long had done most of the work herself, including all the garden-related tasks as well as setting up relationships with organizations and delivering the food to them. In 2019, she spent 875 hours at the garden, a number doesn’t include planting hours or other activities for the garden that occur outside the garden itself.

But, as the garden has grown, so have the number of people volunteering to help Santos. This year has seen the best turnout yet, with 50 volunteers—including Santos—having spent more than 2,100 hours in the garden in 2020. The year isn’t finished yet, with a few pounds of beans left to be picked.

Lawrence Township resident Victoria Meisel works in the Living in Love Food Pantry Garden, located at the corner of Princeton Pike and Allen Lane.

“It’s been a phenomenal year with volunteers,” Santos said. “This year, it’s been a huge blessing. It’s been so needed, and there’s still room for more. We weren’t able to pick all the blueberries, some of them just got beyond us and overripe, and we could have used more volunteers to get them all in.”

Volunteers don’t need to be a member of the church. Santos takes full advantage of the help, as volunteers have weeded the beds, watered plants, picked ripe produce and spread wood chips in the garden.

Lawrence resident Beth Morgan started volunteering this year with her friend Nicole Plett, after they had seen the garden for years while on walks around the neighborhood. On a walk one afternoon in February, they saw Santos working in the garden. They introduced themselves, received a tour of a garden and then signed on to help.

Morgan said she has volunteered about two hours a day, four times a week, and has enjoyed it as an outdoor retreat. She’s done a range of tasks, but one activity in the garden has become a favorite.

“This is really weird, but I like to weed,” Morgan said. “So, I’ve done a lot of weeding.”

Morgan also believes her work in the garden dovetails nicely with her membership in the Lawrence Citizen Activists group. About 20 members of the group have joined her to volunteer at the garden. Some of them have brought in people they know from elsewhere to help, as well.

“It felt like it would fit into our mission in helping the community by relating to the community in a different way,” Morgan said. “Because it’s a food pantry garden, we’re giving food to people who are the most vulnerable in the community. It’s more of a hands-on relationship with them rather than trying to make a law that will affect people down the line. This is a bit more immediate.”

Lawrence resident Beth Morgan fills multiple containers with blueberries. Blueberries have been the Living in Love garden’s most prodigious crop, with 2,000 pounds produced in 2020 alone.

The work certainly is immediate, with Santos often directly delivering produce to an organization right after picking. Where she delivers the produce often depends on what’s in season, how long it lasts and when a specific organization needs new supplies.

The food pantry at the Lawrence Community Center is only open every first and third Thursday, for example, which is great for greens but not ideal for something like tomatoes. This exact scenario led Santos to expand beyond the community center in 2017, to Homefront’s main office on Princeton Avenue in Lawrence.

Then, as the quantity and types of produce expanded, Santos added the Salvation Army Adult Rehab Center in 2018, and organizations like TASK and Mercer Street Friends last year.

This year, the blueberry harvest “just blew us out of the water,” so Santos added new places, such as Arm in Arm and Meals on Wheels of Mercer County, to her delivery list.

Fresh blueberries are a rare treat at a food kitchen or pantry, which has made them quite popular. But, to Santos, the blueberries also serve as a symbol for the garden as a whole.

Based on the number of plants and their age, the bushes would have been expected to yield 1,000 pounds of blueberries this summer. Instead, plants provided more than twice that amount.

In its fourth season, the Living in Love Food Pantry Garden at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church features rows of blueberries, tomatoes, collards, kale, green beans, peppers and peas on a plot so large it takes up much of the church’s backyard at the intersection of Princeton Pike and Allen Lane.

“I don’t know for sure,” Santos said, “but I would have to say they’re happy, and then God has really blessed it.”

This gets to the roots of Living in Love Garden’s name and what Santos has tried to accomplish with the project. She and her church community believe they’ve been given gifts by God. And this is their way to share those gifts with their neighbors.

“God has blessed us with resources, talents, the property, so many things,” Santos said. “And so what this garden is, is living in love. He has loved us, and we go out now out with His love and share that with our neighbors.”

For more information or to volunteer, email Linda Santos at lilgarden@htlcnj.net.