by Pat Munts
If any good came out of the events of September 11, it was the realization that we are a community. And as attention slowly returns to civic concerns, it's time now to celebrate the success of one of our many communities.
The gardening community in the Inland Northwest has always shared its handiwork to make the public and private spaces of our towns and cities more beautiful. They have shared their bounty to fill our kitchens with fresh fruits and vegetables. This year, however, they took that sharing one step further. Since May, gardeners have donated 5,840 pounds of garden-fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs to local food banks as part of the Plant a Row for the Hungry project. This is fresh nutritious food for families right here in our own community -- staples that are the very foundation of the food pyramid.
"This is only the stuff we know about," says Connie Drummond, the program's coordinator for the Inland Empire Gardeners Club. "There was probably 50 percent more donated that we will never know about." She went on to add that the totals did not include the winter squash, apples and other heavy vegetables that get ripe in October.
This was the first year for the program in the Inland Northwest. The Plant a Row program was started in 1995 when Jeff Lowenfeld, a garden writer from Anchorage, Alaska, encountered a hungry street person outside an airport on the East Coast. Thinking about this encounter on the flight home, he decided to enlist his readers and other members of the Garden Writers Association of America to start an idea: why not make donations fresh from the garden? In 1999, HGTV (Home and Garden Television) added its voice to the call and the project took off. As a result, in 2000, 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce found its way to the food banks and soup kitchens across the country. Programs have been established in 44 states and Canada.
Drummond says the Inland Empire Gardeners Club picked up the idea in January. "We really had no idea how many people would join the project" says Drummond. But join they did. "We expected most of the people to just be working in their own gardens, but soon we were getting calls from people who had a garden plot available." Others volunteered to help plant, harvest and deliver the produce.
Locally, the need is still great. Al Brislian, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank, formerly the Spokane Food Bank, says the food bank and its partner food centers and community groups serve nearly 43,000 people a month in Spokane County and 127,000 throughout Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Nearly 44 percent of these are children.
"When we started doing surveys of what our clients would like to see in their emergency food boxes," Brislian says, "their first request was for more fresh vegetables and fruit."
This isn't always easy to provide, as fresh fruit and vegetables take special storage and handling to maintain their quality and nutritional value. He added that by having local gardeners share their produce with local food banks, much of the handling and storage is reduced and the people get the food almost straight from the garden.
Drummond tells a story of the response she received when she delivered packets of fresh herbs at the same time clients were picking up their boxes. The surprised and happy faces said it all: She had made a positive difference to people for whom positive moments were few and far between.
It's not too late to get involved in the Plant a Row project. It may be the end of the gardening season, but if you have squash and other late-harvest produce and fruit, you can still donate them. Then start thinking about next year. After this year's response, Drummond knows there will be many more people involved next year. If you have the extra space, great -- just plan to use it. Gather a group of friends or neighbors and start planning. If you could help pick up produce or grow some starter plants, there is a demonstrated need.
"This year we tried to focus our efforts on just the Spokane area," says Drummond. "Next year, we hope to expand and bring more people into the program. We want to be able to use every plot of land and volunteer we have available."
To volunteer for the program, you can contact Connie Drummond by e-mail at [email protected]
or call the Second Harvest Food Bank at (509) 534-6678. Active planning for next year is already underway. If you still have produce to donate, you can locate your nearest food bank and determine their hours by calling Second Harvest or checking their website at www.shfoodbank.org.