Give a struggling family groceries, they eat for a week. Teach a struggling family to garden, they eat for life.
That’s the message spread by Laurie Selpien, of Lake in the Hills, who last year headed up an effort by the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Food Pantry to grow produce for their customers.
The effort yielded nearly 4,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, and Selpien thinks they can double that effort this year.
But her aim goes beyond feeding the hungry. She wants to teach low-income families how to cheaply feed themselves.
“There’s no excuse for hunger in the United States,” Selpien said. “We can take land that’s sitting idle and convert it into food – all it takes is a little bit of training. ... Anybody can do this.”
A lifelong gardener, Selpien eagerly agreed to take on the project last year. When she noticed that people were unsure about how to prepare some of the vegetables, Selpien printed out recipes to go with each variety.
This year, she wants to take the education a step further, having customers come in when she’s gardening so they can learn the trade.
“A lot of people are intimidated by it. They’re afraid to put the money into the gardens because they don’t know if they can do it,” Selpien said. “There’s a lot of tips and tricks we can do that make it easier.”
A couple of donations helped get the project off its feet last year. The local Rotary Club donated wood, and Greco Exterior Improvements built raised beds at the pantry, 1113 Pyott Road, Lake in the Hills.
But with 300 families to feed, the pantry decided to start an additional garden in a small space at an Algonquin wastewater treatment plant, where Selpien used a fence to grow plants vertically.
Workers at the plant maintained the garden and called Selpien when they needed help.
“We were seeing her at least once a week, many times twice or three times,” said Andy Warmus, Algonquin utilities superintendent. “It inspired me and some of the folks at the wastewater plant. ... It kind of renewed some interest to get into gardening.”
Between the garden at the wastewater treatment plant and the more labor intensive garden at the pantry, Selpien worked nearly full time on a volunteer basis.
And she did it while dealing with reactive airway disease – an ailment that forced her into an early retirement. About 20 years ago, Selpien was injured when she inadvertently breathed in harsh chemicals at work.
She now has to avoid situations that could trigger the disease, such as being around certain types of chemicals or being out in the heat of the day. She was at the garden each morning before 7 a.m.
“You can either have your handicap dictate your life, or you find ways of working around it,” she said. “I’d rather find ways of working around it.”
Selpien was assisted along the way by her daughter, Heather Selpien, who said her mother always has had a heart for the hungry.
“She’s always wanted to feed people,” Heather Selpien said. “Gardening is the easiest way to go about it.”
The Selpien lowdown
Family: Daughter Heather Selpien - 25; Husband Kinney Selpien
Favorite movie: “Transformers”
Favorite vegetable: tomato (“I know there’s a controversy.”)
Favorite fruit: cherry