Do you remember the Victory Gardens of World War II? Well, I don’t because I’m not old enough, but I’ve been told about them countless times by my parents and grandparents. Gardeners pulled together and planted extra food to help out the needy, fostering pride in planting an extra row or two of whatever crops they grew, to be passed along to others. That Victory Garden idea was the inspiration for another program. The Plant a Row for the Hungry (PAR) program was started by the Garden Writers Association of America with the sole purpose of getting gardeners to grow something extra and pass it along.
Garden clubs, Master Gardener’s groups, 4-H clubs, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts groups have all eagerly found ways to be involved. There are inner-city gardeners who use the program to teach young kids how to garden while providing extra produce for local soup kitchens. I visited several such garden programs in San Antonio, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recently and was very impressed, not just with the ability of city dwellers to turn vacant and abandoned lots into productive gardens, but with their determination to instill excitement and enthusiasm in local neighborhood kids for gardening.
But the nice thing is that PAR isn’t a big organization to join; there are no rules (other than grow something and share it), and no dues to pay. Anyone can contribute, simply by growing an extra row of something, then finding a place where it’s needed.
PAR encourages gardeners, young or old, to grow some extra produce. If it’s a group or club effort, then someone designates a location to deliver the produce on a regular basis and each week the gardeners bring in whatever they have grown that week. A volunteer takes the fresh produce to a soup kitchen, food pantry, rest home, or similar neighborhood facility that has agreed to accept it.
Many social service facilities that offer meals or food are strapped for money by budget restraints and are very happy to have donations of fresh produce. And their clients, often those who are down on their luck and in dire need of nutrition, benefit from healthy food on their plates.
It’s a wonderful program, but the herb public—those who grow herbs in their backyards, as well as herb societies—have been very slow to get involved. People often grow and donate baskets full of carrots, tomatoes, corn, peppers, or onions, but few people think about fresh sage or basil as a donation.
We who grow herbs know the vast flavor difference between dried herbs and fresh ones. Everyone likes the flavor of fresh herbs better, so I think it’s time that we herb folks start making a contribution of what we grow best. Plant some extra vegetables, but also plant an extra basil or two, some extra chives, and some rosemary. Plant an extra row of flowers to cut along with some dill, fennel, or oregano, as well. Then find a neighbor who will grow something this year, also; and take your extra produce to your local food bank or soup kitchen.
Consider growing a specific collection of plants, such as everything to make salsa or pesto. Then each week, take all of the ingredients to a soup kitchen, along with the recipe. Think about how much pleasure people would get from a bowl of fresh salsa, or freshly made pesto over pasta. While those agencies cannot accept already-prepared dishes, most can accept a recipe and the fresh ingredients to make it. And be sure to include enough material to feed several people. You could plant green beans and savory, along with an extra row of onions. Peas and mint, carrots and dill, tomatoes and basil—the combinations and opportunities are endless. You will be offering a food donation that might well be the first fresh herb combination ever tasted by some of the folks who benefit from the meals served at that food pantry.
Helping others is what gardeners have always done; it’s what we’re good at. Plant an extra row of something this year and share it.
For more information contact Plant a Row for the Hungry, 10210 Leatherleaf Ct., Manassas, VA 20111; (877) 492-2727; www.gwaa.org.