|“Because gardeners by nature are kind, giving people, you grow one zucchini plant and you’ll have much more than you can use yourself, so you want to have some place to bring it.” Karen Neill, County Extension Director, Guilford County|
Networking between community gardens and food pantries is an excellent way to connect food security organizations with high-quality produce grown by local gardeners. Community gardens run by churches and other faith-based groups tend to be excellent models of the farm-to-food bank concept. These gardens often aim to provide fresh and nutritious food to food insecure people in their area, and their membership can be more easily sustained by the large volunteer base that parishioners provide. In addition, many faith communities operate food pantries or other food distribution programs. Home gardeners also often find themselves with excess produce at the height of the season and can use help identifying and coordinating with places to donate (see the Success Stories for models of how to coordinate garden donations in your community). When donating to food pantries, it is important to be aware of their ability to store perishable products, as well as the days and timing of their distribution; it’s usually best to deliver donations as close to distribution times as possible to reduce the need for refrigeration and storage.
Community and home gardeners who plan to donate before the season starts have the advantage of being able to plant food specifically for donation, as in the popular “Plant a Row for the Hungry” model. This national campaign encourages gardeners to plant an extra row of produce in their gardens and donate their excess to local food pantries or other service organizations. If you work with gardeners who plan to donate, it might be helpful to survey food pantry clients to better understand their produce preferences. For example, some families may not have the equipment necessary to cook at home and would prefer products they can consume raw; other clients may be interested in products that have cultural significance and are challenging to find in local stores. Coordinating with food pantries and their clients increases the likelihood that the food that is donated will be eaten.
In addition to the groups listed in the Success Stories shared here, there are many networks that you can work with to facilitate the donation and utilization of produce from local gardens. Western North Carolina Gardens that Give is a network of volunteers and garden managers who represent community gardens that have the mission of growing food for donation. The purpose of the regional network is to support community gardens’ success by sharing resources, contacts, and knowledge. Gardens that Give does not involve a formal membership and currently involves 10 to 15 community gardens. Diverse models of gardens are represented in the network, including church-funded, nonprofit organizations and some that are municipally operated. Some gardens were established exclusively for the purpose of donating, while some community gardeners grow produce for themselves and donate a portion of their harvest to others.
AmpleHarvest.org is a free, online resource that connects growers with food pantries in their area. The website requires food pantries to register and provide their address, web address, hours of operation, and a preferred contact. This information is then available to gardeners and small-scale farmers who wish to donate fresh produce, making it easier to find pantries in their area and determine when to bring donations.
“If somebody is starting a garden, the day that they think they're starting you've got to get a hold of the Extension Service. You need an agent, you really do, because they are an invaluable resource.” Vic Stephens, Master GardenerSM volunteer, Brunswick County
One Brunswick County church garden is successfully meeting its aim of growing food for those in need. In this model, Vic Stephens began gardening at the New Beginnings Community Church and donating produce to food pantries in 2014; his interest in gardening inspired him to become a Master Gardener volunteer. He began with a 32-foot by 20-foot, raised-bed garden on the church’s grounds. Volunteers from the church funded, built, and maintain the garden. The county horticulture agent was involved from the beginning and provided advice about planning and establishing the garden, including crop selection and maintenance. Before starting the program, Mr. Stephens approached local food pantries to determine what types of products they would prefer for donation.
New Beginnings Community Church belongs to the South Brunswick Interchurch Council, which includes 12 to 14 churches and other groups operating their own gardens. The council coordinates among its members to determine when and to what agency each church should donate produce throughout the week, based on when each pantry is operating. Volunteers attempt to coordinate so that produce is harvested on the day that the pantry does its distribution; this decreases the need for storage and refrigeration. Volunteers package the produce into small amounts that are appropriate for distribution. As a Master Gardener volunteer, Mr. Stephens has leaned heavily on knowledge gained from Extension and from ongoing training and classes, particularly regarding pest control, attracting pollinators, and which types of vegetables are best suited to the climate. Mr. Stephens recommends starting small in order to learn what types of produce best meet the program’s needs. For example, because harvest and donation occurs one day a week, a vegetable such as okra that needs to be harvested daily isn’t a great fit. Similarly, they have found that lettuce is too labor intensive, not just to grow, but also to wash and bag.
“I think it’s connected us with some of the farmers that may not have been giving before because either they didn’t feel like they were reaching the right people or the number of people. But now, even if they’re only able to give 5 pounds of tomatoes, they feel like it’s going to be added to the other 5 pounds that’s coming in from someplace else.” Karen Neill, County Extension Director, Guilford County
Share the Harvest of Guilford County is a nonprofit organization that consolidates produce grown specifically for donation from community and home gardens, as well as excess produce from local farmers. In the Share the Harvest model, gardeners can drop off extra produce at six to 10 designated drop-off sites once or twice a week. The produce is picked up by volunteers who are coordinated through Share the Harvest; the volunteers bring all donations to a community center that offers storage space and refrigeration. The produce is then sorted and distributed to area food pantries based on their needs and demand. By utilizing a log of food pantries’ past needs and their numbers of expected clients, this model addresses the problem of uneven distribution of produce that could otherwise result in waste or scarcity of this high-quality local food. Several faith communities were chosen as drop-off points in the community so that congregants who garden on Saturday could bring their produce to church on Sunday and it could be donated the following day. Coordinators emphasize the importance of marketing the program so that home gardeners are aware of this opportunity and continue to donate. The organization was started by, and is currently run by, community garden leaders. Cooperative Extension helped set up the organization and remains an adviser. The program starts up in June when local produce starts coming in and runs through October.
“What we’ve tried to do recently is empower the food pantry clients to grow their own produce.” Katy Shook, Area Horticulture Agent, Chowan County Center
A Master Gardener volunteer in Chowan, Gates, and Perquimans counties recently developed a program called Grow to Eat. This program takes a different approach to the problem of hunger. Rather than increasing donations to food pantries, this program tries to encourage food pantry clients to grow their own produce. Volunteers solicited donations of seeds from national seed companies and distributed them at local food pantries along with basic information about gardening, including the Extension Master Gardener hotline telephone number for technical assistance. During the first year of the program, volunteers distributed seeds to approximately 275 food pantry clients. They followed up with these clients at the end of the summer, finding that about 60 of the recipients (25 percent) had used the seeds. To improve use of the seeds, the following year the volunteers broke the seed packets into smaller quantities so that each recipient received greater variety. In 2017, this project received a grant that has allowed the group to partner with local school greenhouses to grow transplants for distribution. In addition, Master Gardener volunteers hope to obtain grant funding that would permit them to distribute supplies for container gardens to food pantry clients who don’t have space for a full garden.
Master Gardener volunteers in other counties have also reported providing gardening classes to food pantry clients as they wait in line to receive food. These clients often receive seedlings that local nurseries donate or the volunteers grow.
How Cooperative Extension Can Be Involved
- Provide Gardening Technical Assistance. Cooperative Extension can facilitate the relationships between home/community gardeners and food pantries by providing technical expertise about gardening, as well as by sharing information about where and how to donate excess produce. Master Gardener volunteers can be key players in providing technical assistance to gardeners and also in helping to coordinate donations.
- Coordinate Garden Donations. Coordinating donations from home and community gardeners means gathering a volume of produce that is useful to food pantries, while also making gardeners feel that they can make a substantial difference. In the case of AmpleHarvest.org, Extension agents and Extension volunteers can encourage pantries to register on this website; they also can provide technical assistance if necessary. Extension can encourage gardeners and small-scale farmers to reference this site when they wish to donate produce, and to share the website with others to increase utilization and local impact. Working to determine which food pantries accept local produce donations and promoting the use of the website with gardeners may be a good volunteer project for a Master Gardener volunteer or Extension Master Food Volunteer.
- Supply Nutrition Education and Recipes. Cooperative Extension can support food pantry clients through nutrition and cooking classes, taste tests, and recipes through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed), the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), and the Extension Master Food Volunteer programs.
- Plant a Row for the Hungry
Plant a Row for the Hungry is a public service campaign launched by the GWA Foundation, an association for garden communicators, in 1995. The goal is to encourage gardeners to plant an extra row in their gardens each year and to dedicate their surplus produce to help feed the hungry.
- Share the Harvest of Guilford County
Share the Harvest sets up collection sites throughout Guilford County for farmers and gardeners to drop off their surplus fruits and vegetables to be collected and distributed among food security organizations in the community based on each site’s demand.
AmpleHarvest.org provides a free online database of food pantries that includes the food pantries’ location and hours of operation; this allows local gardeners and farmers to quickly and easily locate food pantries in their area where they can donate extra produce.
- Top 13 Vegetables to Donate to Food Pantries
This guide from Iowa State University Extension not only shares the top vegetables for donation to food pantries, but also gives tips for growing and sharing them, based on a project conducted in that state. (Hint: the 13 include tomatoes and zucchini.)
- Gardens that Give Facebook Page
This western North Carolina group is a network of volunteers and garden managers who represent community gardens that have the mission of growing food for donation.
Publication date: Nov. 8, 2017
Other Publications in Farm to Food Bank Resource Guide for North Carolina Cooperative Extension
- Introduction: Food Banks and Food Pantries
- Direct to Food Bank and Food Pantry Donations
- Venison Donation Programs
- Master Gardener Volunteers and Community / Home Gardens
- Food Pantry Produce Markets
- 4-H Chicken Donation: Embryology to Harvesting
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