Eric Pawlowski gets his hands dirty at work, and could not be happier about it. The Food Bank of Central Louisiana recently hired him to serve as the new Keller Enterprises director of the Good Food Project. For the last month, Pawlowski has been digging in the dirt and working hard in the community garden nestled among some Alexandria city warehouses on a one-third acre plot. “I believe it was Emerson who said if you are looking for God, go dig in the dirt. I love being in a garden,” says Pawlowski.
Produce raised in the Good Food Project’s organic garden, which is located adjacent to the Food Bank on Baldwin Avenue in Alexandria, will be added to the food boxes already distributed to low-income families in 11 parishes. The Good Food Project allows for the creation of community gardens across Central Louisiana and provides fresh, locally grown produce for area residents while teaching the importance of nutritious foods for good health. “Every community garden will be different. But this garden on Baldwin Avenue is a demonstration garden, and serves as a model for a variety of viable systems,” Pawlowski adds.
The Good Food Project, a 5-year program, is funded through a $1.1 million grant from Keller Enterprises of Alexandria, established through the Central Louisiana Community Foundation. The model garden was created last year to teach the community about sustainable, organic gardening. Plans are in the works, to create some satellite gardens in the area to plant and harvest field crops. “We can’t do field crops on a one-third acre plot, and we want to plant pumpkins, squash, sweet corn and watermelon. But we will need dedicated volunteers to harvest and pack it out in one day,” says Eric.
Currently, volunteers are needed at the demonstration garden on Baldwin Avenue every Wednesday. “With this, we are investing in the community and making a difference. We can empower the community, show them what has been successful and help them grow their own sustainable gardens,” notes Pawlowski. Through the Good Food Project, workshops have started to teach people about organic weed and pest management, container and square-foot gardening, soil preparation, composting, water harvesting, mulching, irrigation and general gardening. For Food Bank clients, the workshops are free.
Beyond the sensory experience of gardening, the role of a community gardener provides nourishment for his body and soul, Pawlowski says, adding that a switch in his career brought him to a different path in his life. An Ohio native, Pawlowski earned a degree in anthropology. After graduation, he spent a few years in contract archeology and ethnobotanical research in Central and South America. Later, he began working with the educational department of the Contemporary Arts Center, and eventually with collections and exhibitions at the Natural History Museum in Cincinnati. “I became very disillusioned and despondent after a while with being an educated grave robber,” Pawlowski recalls.
Eric had the opportunity to apprentice for a season at an organic farm in Ohio, and later was offered a position as a market gardener for Community Supported Agriculture in Cincinnati. He was then hired as the coordinator for the Eco Garden Project, a program working with impoverished youth in depressed-area neighborhoods. “I hit the trifecta when I started working in the community supported agriculture gardens. It is physically rewarding. I don’t have to go sweat at a gym. My spirituality is important to me, and when I am in close contact with the creation, it gives me that depth,” Pawlowski says.
For eight seasons in Columbus, Ohio, Pawlowski worked as the farm manager for Shepherd’s Corner, the Dominican Sisters of Peace’s ecology center. The switch in his career from anthropology and archeology to gardening has enriched his life beyond words, he adds. “I started working and dealing with people in their culture, actively and living, not just digging in the past,” he says.
Food can change every dynamic of a society, Pawlowski notes, and with his experience in agriculture he says he wants to be able to help others grow their own food. As soon as school is out in Ohio, his wife, Leslie, and his two daughters, Rhea, 10, and Maeve, 6, will join him in Central Louisiana at their new home and garden.