This is the season for food drives. Barrels pop up at grocery stores, schools, and churches to hold donations of non-perishable items. Without these cans and boxed goods, many Americans would face the reality of going hungry. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate in 2016, one in eight Americans don’t know where they will get their next meal. Underemployment, stagnant wages, and the rising cost of living since the Great Recession have challenged families nationwide with food insecurity. Additionally, alongside this food drive season, it is also the time for fall harvests in many gardens.
Late summer and fall are the seasons for bountiful produce. As a reader of Mother Earth Living, you’ve heard that consuming fresh produce is the healthiest way to nourish your body, especially since some canned or boxed foods may contain high amounts of added salt, sugar, or preservatives. But sometimes you can’t give away another zucchini, and food that could feed those who need a good meal instead gets heaped on the compost pile. Is there a way to serve people in need with this high-quality, homegrown food?
Ways to Donate Homegrown Produce
The need for nutritious meals in some households and an excess of fresh food in others form a critical point where a solution emerges from two problems: hunger and food waste. Whether you grow herbs in pots on your deck or have acres of land, you can help ease the suffering by donating your garden surplus to local food pantries and organizations — especially if you’ve had your fill of freezing summer squash, or are tiring of canning tomatoes. Many food banks are set up with cold storage for perishable items, and they’ll be highly appreciative of fresh instead of canned food.
“Our agencies are so grateful, because they don’t typically get fresh produce,” says Communications Manager Gene Hallinan of Harvesters — The Community Food Network (Harvesters), a regional food bank helping to feed those in the area of Kansas City, Missouri. “People are on fixed incomes, and the price of produce is so high at grocery stores.”
To participate, you’ll have to find out if your local pantry will accept fresh produce, as some aren’t equipped with coolers. If your local pantries aren’t accepting, you may still be able to donate garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. AmpleHarvest.org is a resource that connects home growers with food pantries on a nationwide scale — gardeners in all 50 states have donated to more than 8,200 food pantries across the country. The website contains resources for promoting awareness and educating people about how to end food waste and hunger.
Some organizations try to make it as convenient as possible for growers to donate by offering multiple drop-off locations, while others have volunteers who will pick up donated food from your porch. Some research on your local options will lead you in the best direction.
One of the biggest efforts to connect home gardeners with their local food collection systems is Plant a Row for the Hungry (PAR). This is a public service program created by The Association for Garden Communicators (GWA) and its GWA Foundation, which encourages people to grow an extra row of food in their gardens specifically for donations. Since 1995, PAR has supported volunteer committees across the country to develop community gardens, providing training throughout the process. It has also assisted local food collection systems and monitored the volume of donations they received from these communities. Since 2011, PAR accounts for nearly 2 million pounds of donated fresh food annually.
There are more than 200 PAR committees across the country, located in almost every state. Find a coordinator in your area (or, if there isn’t one, offer to head up a committee yourself!) by going to the GWA website.
Hallinan says Harvesters collected about 10,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2017 through its PAR program. She adds that a lot of it was from regular home gardeners with a surplus of food, while some of it was also from farmers who planted a row of crops specifically for food pantries and brought in produce by the bushel.
“We don’t really know who they are,” Hallinan adds. “They donate anonymously, because they simply enjoy doing it. That’s the joy of it; it’s so easy.”
Harvesters also hosts a demo garden on-site in Kansas City, tended by master gardeners. Hallinan says it’s not that big, but it produces 700 pounds of food each season. “The nice thing is that it shows people different ways to plant, such as in tires and cinderblocks,” she says.
Grass-Roots Gardening Initiatives
Community gardening is another way to get involved in fresh food donations, especially if you don’t have much space to grow a row at home. However, driving to a dedicated site with your gear in tow is not always the easiest way to stay motivated throughout the season. Chris Harms, a Minnesota-based mental health social worker, noticed this and wanted to help solve the problem.
Seeing the daily need for food, at times in people not normally suspected of being hungry, he considered starting a community garden. However, “I quickly found out I’d have 30 really excited volunteers in the spring, and three disgruntled ones in the fall,” Harms says.
He realized that accessibility — right outside the growers’ own back doors — was the solution, so instead Harms launched Giving Gardens. This nonprofit organization supplies all the tools needed — seeds, soil, garden beds, and support — for growing a backyard garden, all at no cost to the grower. In return, each volunteer gardener is asked to donate at least 51 percent of the produce grown to one of Giving Gardens’ participating organizations.
“We take away all the barriers,” Harms says. “The reason we do the installation and delivery is so when we leave your house, you’re ready to go.”
And volunteer gardeners got to work. In 2017, its inaugural year, Giving Gardens donated more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food bank shelves from 50 raised beds. “It was an energetic shot in the arm to local food banks,” Harms adds.
Governments often lack resources to help quickly and profoundly, but go-getters like Harms can broker deals for materials with vendors to start a grass-roots movement. “It’s all local relationships making it happen,” he says. “[Volunteer gardening movements] give people a way to be involved on an individual level in something with incredible impact and psychological benefits behind it.”
Positive Effects of Food Donations
For the grower, no matter their gardening skill level or how much food they can produce, giving in this manner offers a deeper connection to others. For those who are hungry, obtaining fresh produce promotes dignity. “If people don’t have access to healthy food, it can be demoralizing,” Harms says.
Many food coordinators, including Harms and Hallinan, believe that awareness of fresh-food donation programs can significantly contribute to their cause, and there are a few ways to help raise that awareness. Social media posts are one way to alert others; yet old-school techniques, such as an announcement at the Rotary Club or simple word-of-mouth, are just as effective at reaching the right groups.
Harms’ best success came from having information published in a newspaper article. Hallinan also adds, “Every year, we see an increase in donated poundage because people are more aware.”
This people-helping-people food movement also shines light on the reality that so many Americans, from a variety of backgrounds, teeter on the edge of food insecurity. A job loss or medical crisis is all it takes to cross the line of not having enough money to feed yourself or your family. Even in his affluent neighborhood, Harms now understands that you may never know how hunger affects the person next door.
“When you go into a food shelf, you see the face of need, and it’s probably a lot different than you thought,” Harms says. “Every time I walk out, I’m inspired to go and grow more.”
There are millions of households in America with a yard, and if each of them housed a giving garden, we could greatly reduce hunger and improve the substandard diets of many of the poorest among us. You don’t need to have a large planting space to contribute. A small area with a plant or two, perhaps the help of a food supply organization, and a desire to give can be all it takes to help make a difference in your community.
Food Banks vs. Food Pantries
Have you ever wondered what the difference is? Typically, food banks are places that store donated and collected food in large storage areas, and will distribute the food to different organizations that specialize in hunger relief. A food pantry is a type of organization that may work with a food bank, once it has been approved to become an agency. Pantries receive this stored food, prepare it, and give it out in their respective communities to people who need it. Food pantries may also store food on-site, although it tends to be on a smaller scale than food banks.
Knowing what food banks and food pantries do may help you decide how, when, and where to donate certain food, in order to find the most effective pathway for getting nutritious meals to people who need them.
Produce to Give
If you’d like to start a donation garden, focus on growing crops that keep well. Pantries will be able to do the most with the following:
Gardening and Food Donation Resources
- Ample Harvest
- Feeding America
- The Association for Garden Communicators
- Giving Gardens
- Harvesters – The Community Food Network
Andrea Darr is a freelance writer and hobby farmer, with interests in growing food and medicine using permaculture practices.