Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about dining services provided by the Glory Hole.
High above the glitzy bustle of downtown Juneau, crowds of pea shoots and mustard greens bloom on the rooftop of the Glory Hole homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
The shelter this summer is enjoying a healthy harvest with a bounty of salad greens, herbs, and vegetables flourishing on the rooftop garden and in the terraced hillside behind the shelter.
Work began on the garden last year with community partners and shelter patrons largely focused on constructing sheds, raised beds, and other infrastructure. This second season centered on producing as much food as possible.
Mariya Lovischuk, the executive director of the Glory Hole, is appreciative of all the community support the shelter has received to make the garden project viable. She said community members have donated seedlings and soil, volunteers from Slow Food Southeast Alaska and other individuals have helped plant some of the beds, and Miah Lager’s art class at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School painted a beautiful tree mural on the doors of the shed.
Although the Glory Hole has received much outside support, the key to the garden’s success comes from homegrown efforts within the shelter. “The garden wouldn’t work if the patrons weren’t maintaining it,” said Lovischuk.
Upon any mention of the garden, people will immediately direct folks to a tall, quiet man named Andre LaRue. One overcast afternoon, I visited the garden and found LaRue on the roof. He had spent the day watering, harvesting greens and peas for a fresh salad, and reseeding the beds for a second crop. “It’s time to pull out all those plants that are flowering,” said Andre LaRue, pointing to a patch of arugula. “We’ll save the flowers and the good leaves for the salad, and I’ll replant that space with some lettuce.”
Though he grew up in the Lower 48 and overseas, LaRue traces his roots to Southeast Alaska. His grandmother is of the Seagull clan from the Snail house in Hoonah.
“I’ve been gardening all my life,” he said. Wherever they lived, his family always had a garden, even while he was in college. “I needed to feed my wife and kids while I was studying, so we hunted, fished and had our garden,” he recounted with a soft Mississippi drawl. “We only went to the grocery store for a few basics.”
LaRue first learned about the garden project when he came to live at the Glory Hole this spring. He looked at the garden and asked, “Well, who’s going to take care of it?”
Naturally, he assumed the role of coordinating garden activities. Other patrons and community members occasionally stopped by to lend a hand, but LaRue has spent nearly every day in the garden. With half of the summer gone, many fast-growing crops like lettuce and spinach have already completed their life cycles.
“I’m now planting things that will be good until the first snow,” said LaRue, gesturing to swaths of brown earth between the cabbage and the rhubarb. “I can get two more crops of radishes, mustard, Swiss chard, and some other greens.”
Nearby, aromatic stands of thyme, sage, and cilantro grew out of potted containers.
“These herbs, along with the basil we’re growing indoors, are all your spaghetti seasonings,” said LaRue, grinning as he surveyed the edible landscape.
On average, the Glory Hole’s staff picks salad greens two to three times a week. So far, LaRue said that the garden has grown enough produce for about 1,500 meals.
“The two salads I’m harvesting today are enough to feed about 200 people,” he said. “It’s good stuff, 100 percent chemical free. We don’t use chemical fertilizers and no pesticides.”
We headed downstairs to the stone-walled terraced garden plots.
“Gardening is really simple, especially when you do it organically,” he said. “It’s when you start to use chemicals that it gets complicated.”
Horse manure and seaweed were local sources of natural fertilizers for the beds, and weeds are controlled by hand. Non-chemical techniques are also used for addressing garden pests.
Pulling out a medium-sized leaf reduced to a lacy network of holes and green fibers, LaRue explained, “With cabbage, you always have to be on slug patrol.”
As he hunted through the leaves, he muttered, “If there’s a slug in here, I will find him and I will squish him.”
A bed of chard displayed a dazzling rainbow of neon-colored stems amongst the glossy green leaves. LaRue pulled up leafy stems that were white, yellow, and pink and handed them to me. “Taste these. Each color has a different flavor!”
LaRue also talked about the cost savings of his top-quality produce.
“If you were to buy this product at the store, you’re going to pay $6 or $7 a pound,” he said.
Unlike store-bought produce which travels to Juneau from the Lower 48, the salad at the Glory Hole only has to travel down a few flights of stairs before arriving at the table.
“I didn’t think that people were going to eat salad here, but Andre proved me wrong.” said John Lager, the kitchen manager at the Glory Hole. “The salads were very well-received. This kind of food really does energize your body.”
For some of the people the Glory Hole serves, the wholesome meals that include fresh garden vegetables can give those with compromised immune systems a healthy source of much-needed nutrients.
According to Lager, summer is the time of year when the Glory Hole has to buy food, so the fresh garden produce has been especially helpful.
“Before the garden, we were really dependent on donations, so we didn’t always have a fresh salad for people,” he said.
While this summer’s successful harvest is good news, the shelter still struggles each day to feed those in need. The staff at Glory Hole asks businesses and community members to continue making donations of whole grains, unopened dry goods, canned foods, and of course, produce.
“I can’t grow enough things to feed one hundred people a day because I just don’t have the space,” said LaRue.
As LaRue picked up a few tools to put away, he said times have changed since the days of eating local farm-fresh produce.
“Now it’s so easy to run into the kitchen, throw something into the microwave, and run out again,” he said. “We need to start eating together again. It’s especially important for families to make time to share a meal and have a conversation.”
Thanks to his work in the garden and the efforts of many others at the Glory Hole, patrons at the shelter have a chance to start some of these conversations while sharing delicious, homegrown food. For more information about donating to the Glory Hole, call 586-4159 or stop by at 247 South Franklin St. in downtown Juneau.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. Contact her at email@example.com