HALF MOON BAY — If they weren't so exhausted from shoveling compost and piling dirt onto vegetable beds, Melissa Hansell and Bryce Fisher would have plenty of reasons to whistle while they work.
The volunteers run Kelly Avenue Catholic Worker of Half Moon Bay, where they distribute food to hungry Coastside residents and host a free weekly home-cooked community breakfast. Each sunny afternoon finds them covered in dirt and sweat in an open field behind Coastside Lutheran Church, a day closer to their goal of growing enough local, organic produce to feed needy families year-round.
Two months after clearing a field of weeds so tall they could barely see each other, Hansell and Fisher have begun planting 200 square feet of peas, squash, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, lettuce, chard and kale.
The first vegetables they'll coax from the ground this summer will feed about 50 immigrant families.
Fisher and Hansell already make a point of giving away fresh produce to families along with staples like rice, beans, bread and cereal. Processed and canned foods are easy to stock and distribute, and they dominate other food-giveaways on the coast.
"Nonperishable food is easy to store, but we found out that no one was picking up from the farmers markets," said Hansell, 29, who hails from San Bruno.
Late last year, the two volunteers started hitting up the Half Moon Bay farmers market and New Leaf Marketfor fresh-food donations. It was an overnight success with families.
"When we are giving out the food, canned food goes out much more slowly than the fresh produce. People get excited. It goes quick," said Fisher, 23.
So quickly, in fact, that they typically give away 35 bags of produce at a time. Stragglers get staples such as rice and beans, but no vegetables. The supply problem is especially pronounced in winter, when the farmers market ends and fewer vegetables are produced on the coast. Hence the need for more homegrown food.
"My hope is it will fill in the gap in the winter so we can have more food to give away," Fisher said.
The extra food comes at a critical time for hungry Coastside families, especially seasonal workers who live in Half Moon Bay and send their children to local schools. They have been hit hard by the recession, and demand for food and other basic services has gone up, according to Coastside Hope and other local charity organizations.
"Even families who have been here for years have told me there's no work right now," Fisher said.
Neither of these youthful idealists have spent much time on a farm, so they took a class on biointensive organic gardening in Willits before setting their plan in motion. They used hoes and other hand tools to level the land behind the church.
Fisher is having fun experimenting with composting techniques; he's nurturing 12 different compost piles. They'll use the same grass-roots ethic to cultivate the garden with shovels and spades, digging by hand.
Farmer John Muller loaned a piece of his land to Hansell and Fisher; the rest is loaned by the Lutheran church. Muller also gave them some seedlings and planted a cover crop over the garden this winter to prevent erosion. He offered to help them plow their land, and was amused when they declined.
"They didn't want to disturb the worms — it's just so cute," he laughed. "They're just great young people who are doing a good job."
Contact Julia Scott at 650-348-4340.