Gardeners Help Fight Hunger by Growing a Row for Charity

Planting a little extra in the backyard is a grassroots way of keeping communities fed.

(Photo: Aldo Pavin/Getty Images)

May 31, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Nearly 20 years ago, Jeff Lowenfels, the garden columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, took a trip to Washington, D.C. Walking down the streets of the capital, he passed a panhandler who was begging for change. Lowenfels didn’t give the man any money, but he was caught up with the idea of helping him—and others in need. That’s when he hit on a homegrown idea as obvious as a six-foot-tall sunflower. The same week, he asked his readers to plant an extra row in their garden for Bean’s Cafe, the local soup kitchen in Anchorage.

It turned out gardeners were eager to give Bean’s their overflow, and Bean’s was happy to take it. So, in 1995, Lowenfels took the idea to the Garden Writers Association, which encouraged its members, garden columnists at papers across the country, to follow suit. The idea, Plant a Row for the Hungry, spread like fragrant wild mint from Alaska to Georgia, powered by the local people behind newspaper pages and garden spades.

At first, the yields were small. It took five years to reach the first million pounds of donated produce. But exponential growth followed: since 2011, approximately 2 million pounds of produce have been donated each year, with a total of more than 20 million pounds contributing to more than 80 million home-cooked meals—all from gardeners.

“Gardeners are giving people,” said Mary Beth Breckenridge, a home and garden writer for the Akron Beacon Journal who first urged readers to plant a row in 2000. “To be a gardener, you have to be nurturing. Whatever it is that drives you to care for this living thing also drives you to care for other living things.”

She liked “the heart and soul of the idea,” even though she herself grows ornamentals, not vegetables. “I don’t like to cook. If I grow it, I’ve got to cook it,” she said, laughing. Still, she saw the natural fit of the idea.

“Everybody has a gazillion zucchinis, and you can only palm them off on so many neighbors and coworkers. This was a good way to share the extra.” In that sense, Plant a Row institutionalized a tradition that already existed, she explained.

So, Why Should You Care? According to the USDA’s most recent data, close to 50 million Americans, including nearly 16 million children, live in food-insecure households. And while government programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food pantries, and soup kitchens do their part to help ensure that those people have enough to eat, it isn’t always the most nutritious food. With Plant a Row, the community is sharing some of its best, freshest, most healthy food with its own.

There’s nothing flashy about Plant a Row—it’s not a gavel-decreed policy change. Collection sites are meant to be convenient, often somewhere a gardener would already visit, such as a nursery or Home Depot. But part of the success of the program is how little it asks of its participants. It’s just a row! Unassuming but effective, it’s managed to create collective impact, taking root beyond backyards and moving into community and teaching gardens.

In West Hartford, Connecticut, Jane Gottier runs nearly an acre’s worth of garden space at Westmoor Park, all of which is donated to soup kitchens and senior centers through the Plant a Row initiative.

“I happened to walk by the strawberry patch this morning and saw red through the leaves and thought, ‘It’s time,’ ” Gottier said. The growing season will continue through October, but it’s already started with a bang. “Today I harvested 30 pounds of strawberries, and later I’m going to harvest seven or eight pounds of leaf lettuce.”

The gardens function as a multilayered educational tool, teaching both science and service. After kids plant the corn crop, Gottier explains how someone else will be able to eat fresh corn because of those seeds. In the summer, she lines kids up in the cornfield again, this time for a weeding contest; whoever amasses the biggest pile of weeds wins a cherry tomato. “It’s great labor,” she said, laughing.

It may sound folksy to some, like a Norman Rockwell–style picture of American agriculture. But consider this: This week, the UN hunger report found the number of hungry people worldwide had dropped significantly, despite ballooning population growth. What did the UN attribute this to?

“Improved agricultural productivity, especially by small and family farmers, leads to important gains in hunger and poverty reduction,” the report reads. “We must be the Zero Hunger generation,” José Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, added in a statement.

Related: Thanks to Sustainable Farming, Global Hunger Is on the Decline

The same principles can apply in one of the world’s richest nations. Bill Dawson of the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has helped grow the number of community gardens in Columbus, Ohio, from 12 to more than 300 in 15 years. He said people are changed once they see the food insecurity in their own communities, and like Breckenridge, he considers giving to be one of the basic functions of a gardener. Hand in hand, the two principles are a knockout combination, no matter how quietly they may operate.

“People are proud of what they grow. You want to be the first one to get a red tomato on the block. You bring the salt shaker out to the garden, and then you want somebody to share it with,” Dawson said. “What I like to see is people getting that front porch mentality: sharing stories, sharing recipes, and sharing food.”