Growing Vegetables for God & Neighbors

Gettysburg graduate takes down-to-earth path to living discipleship

Many people donate canned goods or money to help fight hunger. Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg alumnus Rev. Matt Lenahan has a more direct approach.

“We are growing food with volunteer support and community support to feed hungry neighbors in Lancaster County,” Lenahan said in an interview. “Nine percent of the population is food insecure, about 52,000 people, the highest number of food-insecure people in the 27-county region of central Pennsylvania. We know we have a problem, and one way of addressing it is to grow food here.” Food insecurity is more than being hungry or being without food, but it also is defined by the access to affordable and nutritious food.

“Here” is the Wittel Farm, an 85-acre operation in Elizabethtown, PA, about 20 miles northwest of Lancaster. Lenahan, who graduated from LTSG in 2001, heads up The Growing Project at the farm, a collaborative effort of the Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central Pennsylvania Inc., which owns Wittel Farm, and Hunger Free Lancaster County.

Lenahan said Hunger Free Lancaster County, a group he helped to develop about 10 years ago, is a “massive collaborative effort of [the] faith community and nonprofits and organizations throughout [Lancaster] County that are working to end hunger.”

Lenahan said The Growing Project is a simple idea with enormous benefits. Fresh produce is “grown by volunteers and distributed through a network of food relief organizations” to people who are food insecure.

For Lenahan, the project is an aspect of practicing his faith. The project “began as a ministry, as part of my faith community’s engagement with the issue of hunger.” Lenahan said. “What we recognize is that the church has a specific calling to feed hungry neighbors; Jesus calls his disciples to feed the hungry.”

Part of this commitment stems from Lenahan’s time at LTSG, one of two seminaries that merged in 2017 to create United Lutheran Seminary. “The action-reflection model of education and formation at the seminary really prepared me to lead in this particular way, to seek out the mission of god and to participate in what god is up to in our community, and to invite others to come alongside and participate in the ways god is already working,” Lenahan said.

The “action” part of the model is very important to Lenahan. “Lot of churches spend lot of time in committee talking about what they going to do,” he said. “What we’ve done here is kind of flip that. We believe that God calls us to action and then to reflect on what we’ve done. The first item on our agenda was, when do we plant? When is planting day? Because I knew if we didn’t have that goal in mind, we might talk about it and never get around to doing it.”

And action has paid off. “This is our third growing season,” Lenahan said. “In the first year, we planted two acres, and harvested about 5,000 pounds in four crops, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini squash. We worked with one food relief organization, the Lancaster County Council of Churches. In year two, we had four acres, and we worked with nine organizations and grew eight crops and harvested 13,000 pounds. This growing season we had seven acres, and we are about to exceed [past numbers] of both volunteer partnerships and total number of pounds of food, and we’re a still month away from the end of the growing season. We will harvest as much as 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, all of which goes into the food relief effort in the county.”

And the project won’t stop there. “We’ve had exponential growth in our harvest over these three years. We expect to grow twenty acres in 2020, and eventually as many as 40 acres of fresh fruits and vegetables here,” Lenahan said.

The effort is not, of course, all about numbers. Lenahan said the impact of the program in the community has been huge, and not just for hungry people. “We’ve seen so much tremendous community impact by bringing people out to the farm. We invited some people from Franklin & Marshall College, young adults, to serve with us, to work on production and harvest,” Lenahan said. “For many of those folks this is their first engagement in farm work, in any kind of agricultural setting at all. Just bringing people out to the farm to participate in that is a tremendous gift.”

The program is working with more partners each year, creating unique ministry opportunities. “[W]e’re seeing community partners step in who want the produce we have to distribute it to our neighbors,” Lenahan said. “On Wednesdays, we bring our food to a community meal at Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster and set up a mobile farmers market. People so thankful get to have free access to really outstanding locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The impetus for this project comes from Lenahan’s faith. “From the beginning of my ministry and my seminary education and now there is a long connection to the idea that we are called to love God and love our neighbor. … This is all God’s work, this is what our creator is doing in our midst, and we get to partner with God in this work we’re doing,” Lenahan said. “We get to be part of this amazing abundance we experience here on the farm every single day, and get to see this multiplication of abundance every single year. We believe in a God that is generous, a creator that creates an abundance and is generous, and everything God makes is good. And when we get to be a part of what the abundant creator is doing, I think that experience is a gift for all of God’s people. I think we become our best selves, become fully human when we are engaged in the work of creation and the work of fruitfulness that God began.”