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How to Donate Your Extra Homegrown Produce




I began gardening in earnest several years ago. The reasons were multifold: I love grounding myself by spending some time digging in the earth. I wanted to eat more fresh, local and healthy foods. I was curious about heirloom plants. I needed a hobby.

Then I had children.

Since having kids, I seldom get around to the tasks that require advance planning, like starting seeds indoors. We usually end up sowing seeds directly into our garden beds once the weather starts to warm. As there are only a few crops this works well for in our climate (or at least in my backyard), and since the children both need to plant the same seeds as each other, we often end up with a bumper crop of about two things. So what do you do with all of that zucchini?

Luckily, Lettuce Link offers a solution. Lettuce Link, a program of the social service agency Solid Ground, connects freshly-grown produce with food banks, allowing gardeners to share the harvest with people for whom fresh produce can really make a difference.

"Good quality, fresh produce is really a treat for food bank clients," says Trish Twomey, Hunger Action Center Director at Solid Ground. "Most of the produce that food banks receive is frozen or canned."

Jake Weber, executive director at Wallingford's Family Works Food Bank, agrees. She shared the results of a recent survey that FamilyWorks conducted. When asked what they like best about the FamilyWorks Food Bank, the number one customer answer was "the quality of food." When asked what food they liked best, food bank customers overwhelmingly responded, "the veggies!"

Fresh produce is more densely packed with nutrients than frozen or canned produce, which is a nutritional boost for its recipients as well. While food banks are grateful to receive any good quality produce, organically-grown fruits and veggies are highly prized. Organics can be too expensive for people on restricted incomes to purchase on their own, and much of the fresh and frozen produce that is donated is not organic.

"I appreciate being able to have healthy, fresh produce for my family because I know it keeps us healthier," said one FamilyWorks client.

If you want to involve your family, scout troop, school or church in growing food for the hungry, you can plant a "giving garden," a space dedicated to growing food for food banks. This can be a great way to introduce young children to the concept of hunger while empowering them to do something to help the hungry. Individual giving gardeners donated more than 17,000 pounds of produce to area food banks in 2011. And that's just the produce that was tracked through Lettuce Link.

Good-looking produce "flies off the shelves" at the food banks, according to Twomey, who cautioned me about bringing in produce that I might choose to eat, as a gardener.

"You know gardeners," she said with a laugh. "They will eat the stuff that's been nibbled on by caterpillars and slugs. When you donate to the food bank, think about whether you would give that produce to a co-worker. Choose the stuff that you are proud to have grown."

Gleaning fruit from community fruit trees or private trees that aren't being harvested is another terrific way to connect fresh produce with food bank clients. If you have fruit trees on your property, City Fruit can help you find a food bank that wants your fruit. Volunteer fruit pickers will pick and donate your fruit if you are unable to harvest it yourself. These volunteers also tend and harvest fruit from trees in parks, along trails and in other public spaces, carting the fruit off to food banks where it is happily received.

Picking fruit, whether on your own property or on public land, is a great volunteer activity for families with children. Barbara Burrill, City Fruit volunteer, has taken her 11-year-old son, Carter, to harvest fruit for several years. They now volunteer together as "fruit tree stewards," tending a small orchard of apples trees along the Burke Gilman trail near their house. What is Carter's favorite part of his volunteer experience?

"I really like climbing the ladder," he said. "I like the feeling of being up high."

Carter also said that he enjoys taking the fruit to the University Food Bank, where it is delivered via a "drive-through window" straight to the kitchen.

Another option is to volunteer at Marra Farm's giving garden in South Park. Volunteers of all ages, including families, are welcome to help grow and harvest the 16,000-22,000 pounds of organic produce it donates to food banks each year. Part of Marra Farm's mission is to grow culturally appropriate foods for the ethnically diverse residents of Beacon Hill and South Park, which means that tomatillos, and daikon radishes are staple crops. This offers volunteers the opportunity to experience some less common produce while also learning organic gardening techniques.

Whether you can plant a tomato plant in a pot, devote a whole row in your garden bed to carrots, or spend time picking apples from another family's tree, the fresh produce is always needed at food banks. So give in to that desire to play in the dirt, and bring your children along for the experience of growing, tending, harvesting and sharing.

Editor's note: This article was updated August 2016. 

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