What was once an acre of useless weeds in Berkeley Township now teems with rows of crops, producing vegetables and fruits for nearby food pantries, and giving Ocean County folks a spot to grow their own produce.

The Wrangle Brook Community Garden, near Lakehurst and Southampton Road, is the result of three years of tireless effort by members of the Unitarian Universalist Ocean County Congregation (UUOCC). They envisioned the vacant lot as a spot to help alleviate hunger and encourage self-sufficiency.

According to Township Councilwoman Judy Noonan, the tract fell into the township's hands through tax delinquency, but there were no plans for its future.

With an assist from Noonan, Coordinator Bonney Parker led her fellow UUOCC members approached Mayor Carmen Amato.

"We were able to lease the land to the church for one dollar a year, for five years," Noonan said.

Sanitation Department Director Mark Vannella organized efforts to clear the land. "There were big weeds that needed to be removed," he said. "We had school groups come and help out, but the...Parks and Beaches Department did most of the physical labor."

Parker said that half the site is dedicated to raising crops for food banks, and UUOCC members are creating individual gardens on the remaining soil.

She estimates that the once-desolate acre has already produced 900 pounds of fresh vegetables, which were given to the People's Pantry food bank.

"This haul brought in heirloom tomatoes, corn, eggplant, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, all using organic practices," said People's Pantry Executive Director Pat Donaghue. "This produce will make so many of our clients' days."

Amato, also a People's Pantry board member, called it a genuine group effort, noting financial support from a broad range of sources.

"Mark Vanella received a grant from the Clean Communities Act and got funding for fencing," Amato said. "The church congregation put up the initial $500, and they met and exceeded their initial funding of $3,000, to get a tractor and a roto-tiller. The money also helped finance a well for water and electricity."

The group also got support from the Ocean County Northern Recycling Center, in the form of wood chips, compost, mulch and soil nutrients. Members of the Pinelands Antique Engine Association spread the compost and tilled the earth.

You can learn more about the Wrangle Brook Community Garden on the Unitarian Universalist Ocean County Congregation web page. Garden volunteers will also be available for discussion during Berkeley's Community Pride Day, September 10 at Veterans' Park in Bayville.

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