About a half dozen present and former HCC students have been volunteering this summer at the South Hadley Community Gardens, helping to grow vegetables there while also teaching patrons of the South Hadley Food Pantry about good nutrition.
Each week, students work in the gardens on Route 47, harvest vegetables, load up their cars and transport produce to Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the food pantry at the United Methodist Church on Carew Street. The pantry, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, feeds roughly 130 families a month.
"Fresh veggies are great because canned vegetables aren't always the healthiest choice," said Carol Isakson, the food pantry's executive director. "It's always terrific to get fresh stuff."
Besides working in the dirt, one student each week prepares a handout that includes a healthy recipe based on a featured vegetable -- and then prepares the recipe and brings the dish to the food pantry so patrons can try it.
The handouts also describe the health benefits of the featured vegetable, a nutritional profile and instructions on how best to store it for longevity.
"Most of the recipes are easy and manageable, even for a non-chef like me," said Isakson. "It's been really popular. People are taking more vegetables than I think they would have."
One recent Wednesday, the featured vegetable was carrots and HCC student Kate Blanchard had prepared a bowl of crispy carrot straws made from a recipe she created. Other recipes, which the food pantry collects in a book, have included Swiss chard salad, zucchini spice bread, yellow wax bean summer salad and roasted tomato caprese salad.
Blanchard has been volunteering at the community gardens three days a week all summer.
"I wanted to help out," said Blanchard, 21, of South Hadley, who is studying Culinary Arts. "I love food and growing."
Like the other student volunteers, Blanchard had at one time taken a class with HCC nutrition Professor Laura Hutchinson, who has organized the volunteer effort. The collaboration between HCC and the food pantry began a year ago with the 23 students in Hutchinson's summer Nutrition 101 class.
The course included a Service Learning project with the food pantry. Students helped plant and manage the food pantry's plot in the community garden and also designed brochures highlighting vegetables and their nutritional benefits. The brochures highlighted a vegetable and included a recipe based on the vegetable that was affordable and incorporated other ingredients available at the food pantry.
Hutchinson didn't teach a summer class this year but she was approached by former students -- some still at HCC, others who had graduated and transferred to the University of Massachusetts -- who wanted to continue the collaboration.
"It's a nice project for the community," said Hutchinson, "and it gives students a little more experience in community nutrition, which is a growing field."
What's different this summer is that the students actually take turns preparing the recipes that they offer to patrons at the food pantry. Sue Brouillette, the lead volunteer gardener, said the prepared dishes help make a critical link between what's grown in the gardens and the fresh produce that's offered to patrons.
"It helps people understand what it's all about," said Brouillette, a retired South Hadley public school teacher.
Brouillette said the interaction between the students, the food pantry staff and the patrons helps foster a community atmosphere that is good for everyone.
"It's wonderful," said Brouillette. "It's a really healthy collaboration for the food pantry, HCC and the community gardens."
Photos: (Left) HCC student Kate Blanchard holds a basket of carrots, the featured vegetable of the week. (Right) Gardener Sue Brouillette unloads some produce at the South Hadley food pantry.