Gardening for the Hungry
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 3, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
A few yards from a parking lot in the College of DuPage is a vegetable garden, about 5000 feet square. All the produce from this garden, several hundred pounds a week, is donated to a local food pantry to help feed the hungry. The garden was begun in 2003 as a joint service learning project of the Biology and English Departments, the outcome of an interdisciplinary course in literature and environmental biology. According to Professor Deborah Adelman, it was intended as a way to alter the consciousness of suburban students about the realities of food and agriculture, but it also become a major community service project as the student volunteers realized the value of the fresh produce they donated to the hungry.
With the recent sharp worldwide rise in the price of food, hunger is a growing problem everywhere. There are few communities, even in areas considered affluent, where some people do not have trouble putting nutritious food on their table. Food pantries exist to help with this need, but pantries need donations in order to operate. Many food pantries actively solicit donations from local gardeners.
At the COD garden, the student volunteers try to grow as wide variety of produce as possible. There is a great ethnic variety in the population of the DuPage area, and for every type of produce there are always patrons of the food pantry who will appreciate it. There are many varieties of peppers growing, several different summer squashes, many kinds of herbs. Now, as the summer growing season ends, they have planted fall crops of carrots, spinach, broccoli and lettuce. Of course, not every crop is successful in our zone; the volunteers mention celeriac as one vegetable they will probably not try again, and the project has given up corn after an infestation of corn root worms.
I spoke recently to Melissa Travis, Director of Food Services at the People's Resource Center, which operates the food pantry that receives the COD garden's produce. This is the largest food pantry in DuPage County, which served 1700 families in July. Fresh produce is constantly in demand. I had just delivered a sack of newly-picked apples from my trees, and the volunteers told me that they had just run out of apples, even though the harvest season in this area is well underway and apples are falling off the trees.
I asked Melissa what advice she would give to gardeners who are considering donating produce to a food pantry. She told me that while they are always glad to receive any donations, they would be happier to see other kinds of vegetables besides the usual summer overflow of tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini, even though these are the most popular with patrons. She mentioned spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and green beans as produce that would be especially welcome, as well as squashes other than zucchini, and new potatoes. She was happy to hear that I have a surplus of green onions that I am willing to donate. Fresh fruit is something they rarely receive and are always glad to see.
If you have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, an overabundance of strawberries in June or apples in the fall, do consider donating some of your excess produce to a local food pantry. Melissa made a point of assuring me that donations of any size are always welcome at the PRC pantry, even when someone comes with just a couple of tomatoes in a paper bag.
Before you load up your car, however, check to make sure the food pantry accepts fresh produce. Some smaller pantries, such as the one closest to me, do not have the room or the necessary refrigeration; they prefer to receive only nonperishable goods. Food pantries and soup kitchens often solicit donations and will specify what sort of foods they will accept, or you can call to ask.
Many pantries work with the "Plant A Row for the Hungry" campaign of the Garden Writers Association that helps publicize the need for donations of fresh produce. The Plant A Row campaign was born from one member's realization that if every gardener would only plant one extra row of vegetables, hunger could be greatly alleviated and the poor would have access to fresh food they might otherwise not be able to afford. When you begin to plan your vegetable garden for next spring, consider planting a little more than you need, an extra row of some high-yield produce such as green beans, carrots or green onions. There may be a Plant A Row campaign active in your community, with a participating food pantry. If not, you might consider starting one. The GWA website has material to help you get started.
Another worthwhile project, on a larger scale, is a community garden, much like the garden at the College of DuPage, where the produce is earmarked for a food panty or soup kitchen. Many towns make community garden plots available. If you belong to a garden club or a service organization, you might suggest that they consider such a project. In the Chicago area, the Daily Herald newspapers sponsor their own program called Giving Gardens, in which they encourage individuals and groups to establish gardens and donate the produce to participating food pantries. Schools, churches, scouts, and clubs have all grown gardens to help feed the hungry. Like the students at the College of DuPage, they have discovered that they can make a difference.
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