Sowing the seeds to feed local families

By Kelly Black, For The Observer February 24, 2014 07:42 am

The concept is simple — grow a row to help a neighbor in need.

This summer, gardeners will have the opportunity to plant an extra row of produce and deliver the harvest to Community Connection for distribution to families that are in need.

“The Grow a Row program is a great way to do something fun while helping out your friends and neighbors who may be struggling to keep food on the table,” said Carmen Gentry, Union County manager of Community Connection of Northeast Oregon.

The Grow A Row campaign is a collaborative project between Oregon Rural Action, the La Grande Community Garden and Community Connection.

“The mission behind Grow a Row is to increase fresh food donations to our local food bank,” said Chantell Cosner, a member of the La Grande community garden and Oregon Rural Action.

Cosner would like to involve gardeners throughout Union and Baker counties as well as those who have a plot at the community garden. She hopes to keep area food banks stocked this summer with fresh produce grown locally.

“A lot of the vegetables at the store are bred specifically for transportation,” said Cosner. “What a gardener can grow in their garden is a superior product and you can taste it.”

Gardeners can choose vegetable varieties based on taste and local climate rather than suitability to survive the long road from the farm to the supermarket.

This past summer Cosner grew a carrot variety called Mokum from Territorial Seed Company. A friend said he had never tasted a garden-grown carrot. After one bite, he was completely converted to home-grown carrots.

“A carrot should taste sweet,” said Cosner. “The sugars in it should be apparent.”

“There is a sense that what you grow in the ground: it tastes better, it smells better,” said Cosner. “It might not look better.”

The need to transport produce also drives up costs. These transportation miles are sometimes called food miles.

“Produce is expensive,” said Thomas Stratton, a local food and consumer education organizer at Oregon Rural Action. “The transportation costs is what you pay for with these foods. So keeping the growth local and delivery local is really important.”

Cosner suggests growing produce for donation that keeps well and stores without the need for a lot of refrigeration. Her list includes squash, potatoes, onions, garlic green beans, tomatillos, bell peppers and zucchini.

Bridget Thamert, coordinator for Haven from Hunger emergency food bank, got started six years ago growing produce for local families. She was involved with a Head Start plot at the La Grande community garden where local families in need could pick produce. Excess produce was donated.

“It is especially imperative today because of all the food stamp cuts,” said Bridget.

Thamert references recent cuts to SNAP and unemployment benefits as well as the latest Farm Bill, which will cut $8.6 billion in program resources over the next 10 years.

Some gardeners already donate to local food banks. Thamert hopes the Grow a Row campaign will reach an even wider audience of gardeners.

Excess produce — like those giant zucchinis — can sometimes overwhelm local green thumbs.

“This way it goes for an excellent cause and is ending up on someone’s plate instead of a compost pile,” said Cosner.

The campaign hopes to track the level of community involvement by actually weighing produce that is donated to Community Connection by people registered in the Grow a Row program. 

Gentry is enthusiastic about accepting garden donations.

“Many people in our community take pride in gardening and in many cases they grow more than they can use. The Grow a Row program allows people to do something they love and to give back to the community,” said Gentry.