Craig and I both feel so fortunate to have the resources to grow our own food. We have the finances to be able to buy seeds. The space to grow acre after acre of crops. The knowledge to know the difference between good garden bugs and bad. And the time to devote to planting, weeding and harvesting. We know not everyone has the ability to produce pounds and pounds of healthy food—and for that ability we are eternally grateful. Without a doubt, we eat healthier (and are healthier) because we can grow our own healthy, fresh produce to eat with every meal.
During one of our marathon gardening days last summer, we started talking about how unfortunate it is that not everyone has access to fresh food like we do. We understand that gardening isn’t the spiritual experience for everyone as it is for us. And we also understand that a lot of folks lack the resources that are required to grow—or even just buy—healthy, fresh, produce. So we started brainstorming ways we could help. How could we take this passion for growing food and make it a positive for our community?
We had a lot of great ideas. And many of them are still in the back of our minds for future implementation. But we wanted something immediate. Something we could do with the resources we had on hand to make a difference.
So right then and there, we decided we were going to plant a row for our community.
If you’re fortunate enough to have never needed to step food inside a food pantry, you might not know this, but food pantries are fresh food deserts. Think about the last food drive you heard about. Ever hear anyone say anything about holding a tomato drive or a strawberry drive? No, it’s always a canned food drive—it’s all about the non-perishables. And while that’s totally understandable from a logistical stand point, the truth is, it isn’t the healthiest way to fuel your body.
I fully believe that just because you are down on your luck doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to healthy foods. In fact, I’d even take that sentiment a step further and say that I believe those people who are struggling need healthy foods the most. A healthy diet isn’t just about wearing smaller jeans. It’s about having the energy to face the day, avoiding illness, and feeling good about yourself—all things that can go a long way to make a bleak time feel a little less bleak. I’m not suggesting we toss out all the canned goods and packaged foods in the food pantry—any kind of calories are good when you’re hungry—I’m simply hoping to do a little bit to help supplement the foundation of packaged foods for people in my community.
Earlier this Spring, when we were planting our garden, we decided to devote a “row” for donation to our community. I use the term row loosely, because we actually decided to plant a small section of raised beds in an old, run-down greenhouse. It’s a small amount of space—about 25 square feet total—but we were wanting to use this year as a test run before we went bigger in years future.
Before we devoted a ton of time and resources to this project, we wanted to make sure we had the logistics figured out—where we were going to donate, how we were going to harvest, packaged and transport and what were good items to grow for the food pantry
We did some research about local food pantries, and discovered this incredible organization called AmpleHarvest.org. Their entire mission is to connect gardeners with their local food pantry so they can donate extra crops. We were so happy to find a national organization working hard to do the same thing we were trying to do locally!
AmpleHarvest.org helped us find food pantries in our area that accepted fresh produce (most do), and we eventually landed on the Washington County Food Bank. It’s a small, government-run pantry in our county that had over 7,000 visitors last year. That might not sound like much, but when you take into account the fact that we live in a very rural county, it becomes a little more substantial. The entire population of our county is only 25,000 people!
So far, the experiment has been going incredibly well. We’ve dropped off four times to our local food pantry, and each time, they couldn’t be more grateful for the donations. Our goal for the year was a modest one of donating 100 pounds—we still have a few months of growing season left and we’re already up to well over 75 pounds! We’re thrilled with the results so far.
Our original thought was to just donate what we grew in the greenhouse, but we’ve been donating a lot more than just that. In the greenhouse, we planted tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, beans and radishes—and while we’ve been donating all of those, we’ve also been donating extra crops from the main garden, too. We’ve dropped off potatoes, kale, yellow squash, zucchini, basil, cantaloupe, and honeydew.
We have learned a few things for next year that we’ll tweak. First of all, we want to do a much larger “row” than this year! It’s been a total success, and we’d love to expand what we can donate, and maybe even donate to multiple food banks in the area. We’d love to eventually get to the point where we are donating one pound of food for every pound we grow for ourselves, but that’s probably a bit down the road. I think for now, we’ll set a goal of trying to donate 200 pounds next year, and see how it goes.
We also have the idea of working with the food pantry and putting on free workshops to teach people how to garden and how to cook with fresh produce—again, down the road.
Next year, we’re also planning on changing what we grow for donation. Because we live in a rural area with a lot of gardeners, in the middle of summer, the food pantry was stocked full of extra tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. When we were planning it out, we figured that volume was better than variety for a donation garden, so we planted varieties that would produce a high volume of fruit, but the truth is, the food pantry was getting so many bags of tomatoes and cucumbers in July, they actually had to throw some out! This might not be the case for a more urban food pantry (which is one of the reasons we’d like to donate to multiple food pantries next year).
So our plan for next year is to still grow some of the high-volume varieties, but instead focus on good producers that aren’t as common to our food pantry’s shelves—”high value” produce, if you will. The volunteers at the pantry were thrilled when be brought in cantaloupe and honeydew! And Craig actually had one client of the food pantry stop him as he was walking in to take a big bunch of kale off the top of our donation box. We’d like to really focus on providing foods that folks might not be able to get elsewhere. I think everyone should get the chance to eat some fresh cantaloupe in the summer!
I hope our success inspires some of you other gardeners out there to consider planting a row (or two!) for your own community. It feels so great to be able to give back this way! I know it can often be a struggle to find dollars in the budget to donate cash or extra hours in your week to donate time, but by just planting a little more in the garden you’re already growing, you can make a huge impact without devoting a whole lot of extra money or time. It’s an incredibly efficient way to make a difference!
If you are a gardener and are interested in donating your extra crops, I highly recommend checking out AmpleHarvest.org and looking for a food pantry in your area that accepts donations. If you aren’t a gardener, a few dollars sent to AmpleHarvest.org can go a long way to get out the word about their mission.