Gardeners have always been proud to share their excess produce with the needy, and they’ve found some creative ways to do it. Now farmers, community groups, and employers are also joining forces to fight hunger in America. Read on for inspiration.
Gifts from the Garden
Neighbors can handle only so many of our zucchini. A “produce exchange” at church, school, or work is a great way to distribute the harvest. This could be as simple as a table in a common area where people bring what they have and take what they need. Volunteers deliver the unclaimed produce to a community food bank, shelter, or soup kitchen. Gardeners can harness the energies of neighbors with gardens to form a neighborhood produce exchange. Or take it to an even higher level by listing produce at The Farmer’s Garden—a virtual bulletin board where members can buy, sell, trade, or donate fruits and vegetables. The Gallatin Empire Garden Club in Bozeman, Montana, raises and sells produce at the Bozeman Farmer’s Market. Unsold produce is donated to the Gallatin County Food Bank, and all proceeds support community projects.
Those who live in high-traffic areas can offer their produce to passersby. A curbside table full of produce labeled “Free” will always have customers. New Zealand gardener Diana Noonan went a step further and created a small roadside garden in the unused strip between her property fence and the street, then posted signs telling people to pick whatever they wanted. Passing cyclists are especially appreciative of Noonan’s “gift garden.” Organic Gardening reader Amy Estel Scioli tried a similar experiment, planting a “friendly neighbor” garden in her not-so-friendly neighborhood in the hopes that free berries and tomatoes would cheer someone up.
Gardeners who have the space can join with the Garden Writers Association Foundation and Plant a Row for the Hungry. Simply weigh any extra produce, donate it to charity, and then report the total pounds delivered. Volunteers have donated 14 million pounds of herbs and vegetables through this program since 1995. Food Banks Canada sponsors a similar effort, called Plant a Row Grow a Row. Note: Smaller food pantries are often unable to accept donations of perishable foods because they lack refrigerated storage. Faith communities and nonprofit groups can help by raising funds for the purchase of coolers and freezers. In the meantime, AmpleHarvest.org helps gardeners and farmers find a pantry that accepts fruit and vegetables. Inexpensive, easy-to-prepare recipes make a thoughtful addition to a basket of donated produce.
Besides fruits and vegetables, seedling starts and seeds are often welcomed by community gardens and food banks. They can be used to grow food for clients or given directly to the clients so they can start their own gardens. Cooperative Extension agents also appreciate donated seeds for use in education programs. Be sure to label the seeds with the variety and date.
Gifts of Community
Community gardens offer another way for gardeners to share their gifts. Master Gardeners can offer their expertise to newbies and assist with planning and management. Organic Gardening reader Paula Miller Piatt tells us that her church started a garden where anyone can come pick what they need; reader Charlene Clinger reports that her local Girl Scout troop tends a plot in a community garden and donates the harvest.
Giving can sometimes benefit the grower as well as the recipient. Some nonprofits are working with Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms to source their food from local growers. The Vermont Foodbank, for example, partners with the Foodbank Farming Network to supply its network of food pantries throughout the state. The Homeless Garden Project, based in Santa Cruz, California, sells produce through CSA shares and also the local farmers’ market. Proceeds benefit the homeless, and the volunteers who tend the garden (who are themselves homeless) learn valuable job skills. Such projects help ensure that fresh, local food is available to communities that would otherwise lack access.
Waste Not, Want Not
Every year, millions of pounds of perfectly edible food is wasted in America. Some is left behind in fields and orchards after mechanical harvesting, some is culled because it is cosmetically unsuitable, and some is discarded by restaurants and cafeterias after cooking.
Gleaning (“food rescue”) programs are one way to divert some of this waste away from landfills and onto dinner plates. The practice of allowing the poor to glean, or collect leftover crops from farmers’ fields after the harvest, dates back to at least Biblical times. Today, the tradition is being revived. Volunteers from the Portland Fruit Tree Project in Oregon, Village Harvest in the San Francisco Bay area, Food Forward in the Los Angeles area, and Operation Fruit Rescue in Edmonton, Alberta, for example, pick fruit or berries that homeowners don’t want or can’t pick. The harvest is typically divided among the homeowners, volunteers, and local food banks. The Society of St. Andrew has established a network of gleaning programs and offers information about food waste on its website. A toolkit for starting a gleaning program is available from United We Serve, a project of the Corporation for National & Community Service. Locate service opportunities or register a service project at United We Serve’s Healthy Foods page.
After reporting on the staggering waste of food in California (caterers, hotels, and restaurants in the state discard about 1.5 million tons of perfectly good food every year), Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus suggested that California pass a law requiring restaurants to post a message to an online bulletin board when they have edible leftovers. He called it a “Craigslist for cuisine.” It’s something other states and food-service trade organizations may want to consider, as well.
Farmers Sharing the Harvest
Some farmers and market gardeners have made arrangements with local food banks and soup kitchens to claim their unsold produce at the end of a marketing day. Food banks may be willing to coordinate volunteers to pick up the produce if the farmer does not have the time to make the delivery personally. Urban farms in low-income communities (such as Spiral Gardens in Berkeley, California, or Flatbush Farm Share in Brooklyn, New York) often sell produce at cost or on a sliding scale depending on the customer’s ability to pay.
Since many small growers operate on very slim profit margins, they can’t always afford to donate part of their harvest, though they would like to help the hungry. To bridge this gap, the Vermont Foodbank launched an innovative program called Pick for Your Neighbor with funding from the state’s agriculture agency. Each September, orchards participating in the program invite visitors to pick apples and pay for them. The apples are set aside to be gathered up by food bank workers and taken to the nearest regional food bank facility, where they are distributed to 280 network agencies throughout the state. As they pick for their neighbors, apple-pickers are helping to preserve local farms and cultures.
The Seed Library Farm donates seeds to many organizations in New York’s Hudson Valley. It has also donated seeds to markets that accept food stamps so people can buy seeds to grow at home and feed themselves and their community. Part of the farm’s mission is to teach gardeners how to save seeds so that they can have a self-sufficient garden for generations.
Not all farmers’ markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, cards as a form of payment (SNAP was formerly known as food stamps). Information to help market managers understand and serve SNAP customers is available from the USDA. The nonprofit organization Wholesome Wave sponsors a Double Value Coupon Program that increases the purchasing power of consumers when they shop at farmers’ markets.
• Feeding America is the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. Go to “Faces of Hunger” and click on “Hunger Study 2010” to download a comprehensive report on the nation’s emergency food-distribution network.
• The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) works to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States.
• Bread for the World is a faith-based nonprofit that advocates for government policies and programs that help the hungry.
• The Community Food Security Coalition focuses on building a more sustainable and just food system.
• We Can End Hunger maintains a portal of resources to increase food and nutrition initiatives nationwide.
• WhyHunger supports grassroots solutions to hunger and poverty that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.
• Share Our Strength invites restaurants and chefs to join the battle against hunger.
• The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service offers information about federal programs for the hungry.