Urban gardeners know the dread of tossing out a rotting tomato or returning a flimsy batch of greens to the compost bin. When harvest hits full swing, gardeners experience a sudden shift from clinging to their coveted vegetables to divvying out a proliferation of them to any willing taker.
In reality, most gardeners in the U.S. grow more vegetables than they need. According to the nonprofit AmpleHarvest.org, 40 million home gardeners harvest more food than they can possibly eat, preserve or share with friends.
While urban gardeners scramble to find hungry mouths for their plentiful harvests, many Americans are silently missing meals because of food insecurity and poverty. In 2013, the USDA reported more than 49 million Americans were living in food insecure households, and 15.8 million were children. Impoverished households were especially lacking nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which are vital for proper child development. A healthy, well-balanced diet during the first few years of life determines long-term mental and physical health outcomes, as well as academic achievement.
Even if poverty and food insecurity aren’t outwardly apparent in your community, it’s likely someone nearby discreetly suffers from a lack of food. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, food insecurity exists in every county in America, ranging from 3 percent in a North Dakota community to 33 percent in a Mississippi community. These startling statistics underline the great potential to use even the smallest urban and community gardens for a greater good.
Here are a few ways to use your urban garden and gardening know-how as tools to feed hungry families in your community.
1. Join a Community Garden
Tucked away on humble street corners or small land vacancies in urban settings, community gardens are strategically placed in neighborhoods where residents need food assistance. Typically, these U-pick gardens are set up so anyone in need of food can pick fresh vegetables from the garden, or local residents can rent a plot to tend throughout the season for a small fee.
Nonprofit organizations or neighborhood groups running community gardens usually seek volunteers for tasks, such as planting, weeding, mulching, harvesting, and distributing leftover vegetables to families and food banks. Managers of these gardens also play an educational role, informing local citizens how to plant and grow their own food and advising on the right time to pick a vegetable.
As an urban farmer, you offer valuable insight and experience cultivating in small spaces. If you’d like to get out of your own garden and engage with people, volunteering an hour a week to maintain a community garden might be the best use of your time.
2. Donate a Plant
Starting seeds indoors before the growing season is an economical decision, but overzealous growers can find themselves inundated with plants when it’s time to transplant outdoors. If you have a few extra seedlings at the start of the season, offer to share your plants with a community garden or nonprofit. Rather than offering space-hogging plants and climbers needing trellises, consider donating smaller, bush varieties to preserve space.
3. Plant a Row
If feeding your community tugs at your heart but you’d rather isolate your gardening duties to your own backyard, dedicate one row, plot or raised bed to feeding the hungry. Be strategic when considering planting for a charity or food bank: Reserve your space for vegetables you know won’t spoil before being delivered. Resist planting fast-perishing vegetables or delicate foods, such as berries, which won’t transport well. Because refrigerator space is limited at food banks, consider planting sturdy crops, such as turnips, beets, onions, garlic and collard greens, which are more forgiving when stored at room temperature.
High-yielding garden vegetables, such as green beans and tomatoes, are also desired by food pantries and charitable organizations, but remember to pick tomatoes when they are slightly under-ripe. Harvest an ample portion of green beans with the intention of feeding large groups and families. Try to coordinate your charitable harvest so there’s very little lag time between picking and transporting the vegetable to the location of distribution. Contact a leader within an organization dedicated to distributing food to find out the best time to pick and deliver your harvest.
4. Remember Leftovers
Keep an eye on those garden vegetables hand-picked for your kitchen. If circumstances prevent you or your family from eating the vegetables before they go bad, consider dropping them off at a church, a charitable organization or a food pantry that operate feeding programs. Thinking ahead can prevent perfectly good vegetables from turning back into compost.
5. Connect With a Charitable Distributor
Several community nonprofits accumulate food surplus by gleaning at farmers markets, working with local gardeners, and by collecting food from restaurants and businesses, and distribute the food to organizations with direct access to hungry families. Network within your local gardening community to find out whether such an organization exists. To find food local pantries accepting donations of fresh produce, use the search function available at AmpleHarvest.org. Your local agricultural extension office can also help locate an organization to handle the distribution of your food.
6. Start a Movement
Since the Garden Writer Association’s Plant-a-Row program started in 1995, American gardeners have donated more than 80 million meals to those in need. Its website provides guidance on how to establish a Plant-a Row program in your community.