Steve Desch's food pantry garden

As Steve Desch’s four children play in the dirt and nibble on fresh peas, Desch works in his family garden watering, planting seeds and pulling weeds. He claims that while he does most of the grunt work, his three daughters and son don’t do much except tear up the dirt. Like most children, Desch’s kids enjoy getting dirty, but they may be too young to understand how much work it actually takes their father to maintain a garden – let alone two.

Desch, an astronomy instructor at GTCC, exercises his green thumb at home and at work, where he lends his experience and knowledge to the GTCC Food Pantry Garden. Desch is the garden’s primary caretaker, a responsibility he has enjoyed for the past six years.

GTCC Food Pantry

The Food Pantry Garden is an extension of the GTCC Food Pantry, which provides food to faculty, staff and students in need. During the growing season, vegetables from the garden are harvested and made available to faculty, staff and students for free. Both the GTCC Food Pantry and the Food Pantry Garden are supported financially by the GTCC Foundation.”It is a good way to relieve stress, and it’s a good way to talk to people and get them interested in their own gardens or the food pantry,” he said. “I like seeing stuff growing and coming to fruition.”

During the height of the recession in fall 2008, the Student Government Association (SGA) created the Food Pantry as a response to students’ hardships.

“Students were having to pick between coming to class or putting food on their table,” said Matthew Frow, who served as the SGA vice president for clubs during that time.

By spring 2009, Margot Horney, a former GTCC employee, enlisted the help of the SGA to plant a campus garden that would serve the college community in conjunction with the GTCC Food Pantry.

“It was really in order to supplement the Food Pantry and to introduce fresh food into the packaged food we already had,” Horney said.

His work in the garden begins shortly after North Carolina’s brief winter. First, he breaks up the soil so that it aerates and allows water to be more easily absorbed – a common farming procedure known as tilling. Next, he plants seeds. Desch said that peas can be planted as early as February. Other “cool weather” plants that grow in the garden during this time are cabbage, lettuce and turnips. Shortly before summer arrives, the fresh produce is harvested.Today, Desch continues to carry out Horney’s vision. He tends to the garden nearly year-round to provide GTCC students, faculty and staff with approximately 200 pounds of fresh produce.

In July, Desch tills the dirt again and plants summer veggies such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. This round of produce arrives along with the thousands of GTCC students beginning fall classes.

Steve Desch GTCC Summer VeggiesDesch manages to fit in one more “cool weather” planting season shortly after the summer veggies are harvested and just before the winter weather becomes too harsh. He plants lettuce, broccoli and carrots, which tend to grow well during this season. Desch says the colder the weather is the sweeter they are.

During the growing seasons, Desch kneels down in the dirt and inspects each plant one by one for insects. He tries his best to rid the plants of bugs with his own hands instead of resorting to pesticides, a vision which was important to Horney too when she first started the garden.

“If you want to take a tomato, you can take the tomato off the plant and eat it across campus,” she said.

In the six years Desch has been caring for the garden, he has only used pesticides a few times due to bug infestations and when absolutely necessary.

While Desch primarily cares for the garden, he also relies on a few faculty, staff and student volunteers, including SGA representatives and officers, who help maintain the garden.

“The volunteers can see first-hand the need for donations and healthy options for students that are essential for their success in class,” said Berri Cross, director of Student Life at GTCC.

During the growing season, the GTCC Food Pantry Garden offers free produce on most Tuesdays beginning at 11 a.m. in the cafeteria in Medlin Campus Center on the Jamestown Campus. For more information about the garden or to learn how to volunteer contact Steve Desch at

– Heather Ebert/GTCC

Published July 14, 2014