Atlantic Cities

What I Learned About Community By Working with Community Gardens

What I Learned About Community By Working with Community Gardens
Courtesy: The Gardeners' Share

If it’s Tuesday, it’s collection night for The Gardeners’ Share, a small community project I founded just outside Washington, D.C.  From May through October, we set up what looks like a child’s lemonade stand on the edge of the community gardens in Lewinsville Park. The stand opens for business with full bottles of lemonade and empty baskets. By the close of the evening, the bottles usually are empty and the baskets full. Within 14 hours, all that has been gathered will be given away at the local food pantry. 

Located in McLean, Virginia, The Gardeners’ Share is working to raise the awareness of hunger in our own town, which is considered an affluent community. The gift of an extra squash or a bunch of turnips can help provide healthy fresh food to neighbors in need.

When the basket is full, it will contain as great a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs as the gardeners who brought them. Many gardening enthusiasts contribute to this program: single, married, working, retired empty-nesters, young families, native-born and first generation immigrants. Some people enjoy the work for the few weeks of summer and focus on single crops of tomatoes, peppers or squash for their family. For others, the growing season begins just after the snow melts in the early spring and extends beyond the first frost. Their gardens produce more than they can eat, freeze, can and give away to family and friends.

The plots in our local park offer an opportunity to be close to nature – watching crops grow and hoping to harvest the bounty before deer, rabbits or uninvited humans get there first. It’s a chance to eat tomatoes right off the vine, radishes straight from the soil and to share the pleasures of eating good healthy food that we’ve grown ourselves.

Maya is such a gardener, one of the best in the park. She’s the daughter of a minister who planted a victory garden on his church grounds during World War II. Maya learned early on how delicious a fresh tomato can taste. She’s generous with both her experience and her food. Each week she shares what is ready: baby spinach and snap peas in the spring, swiss chard, black berries, tomatoes in the summer, and tender lettuce as the season draws to a close. 

It’s a joy, she tells me, to share what she has. Some needy families would be happy to receive a squash the size of a baseball bat but Maya does better than that. "The food I really enjoy myself is the gift I prefer to give,” she says.

Like so many people today who don’t know where their food comes from, clients may not know how to prepare vegetables straight from the garden. So Maya gives recipes as well, complete with easy-to-understand suggestions like these instructions: “Chop up the chard and mix it with Hamburger Helper or whatever you’ve selected from the pantry shelves. Use it just as you would spinach. It’s a green and they’re pretty much the same."

The recipients of this fresh food are clients at a local pantry, just 13 miles from the U.S. Capitol called Share of McLean. McLean, Virginia, is a town in Fairfax County.  With a median income around $122,000, this area has weathered the economic downturn better than many other parts of the country. Still, as defined by the federal government, 5.2 percent of the population in Fairfax County (51,491 people) live below the poverty line.   

In McLean, Great Falls, and a portion of Pimmit Hills, there are more than 1,000 people who are food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meal will come from. Share provides them clothing, furniture, and food. Each client also receives canned and packaged foods made available through donations. Thanks to our work, Share can now offer fresh vegetables on a regular basis. 

Hunter Pollitt, co-chair of Share’s food pantry, says the fresh vegetables appeal particularly to the significant Share demographic of retired seniors and immigrant families. Many of them tended summer gardens as children; the baskets teeming with glistening vegetables and aromatic herbs reinvigorate those memories. During the growing season, the Gardeners’ Share provides a comfort zone for clients that amplifies the vital importance of community outreach.

The Gardeners’ Share was an idea that came to me on a walk in the park in 2009. I noticed that in the fall, as school began and the days got shorter, some gardeners’ plots were being neglected. Tomatoes, squash, greens and herbs were rotting. With the support of the Fairfax County Parks Department, I invited gardeners to contribute whatever they grew, after they’d filled the needs of their families and friends.

No preseason commitment or obligation – just a reminder each week to consider whether they’d be using all the food ready for picking. We choose Share of McLean to receive our extra bounty because we wanted to help our neighbors. With layoffs and budget cutbacks, they have seen a steady rise in what is now referred to as the suburban poor. Each month on average, Share distributes almost 700 bags of food.

“While this is an affluent area, the cost of living is higher than in other places, so the need is great," Congressman Frank Wolf said at a recent press conference. "People who used to drop food by are now coming by to pick up food."  

In the first year of The Gardeners’ Share, we collected nearly 250 pounds of produce. In year two, donations were just shy of 600 pounds. At times it sounds small or boutique compared to large anti-hunger programs across the country. But it’s a start.

Each week in season, I deliver the food baskets. I know the origin of everything. To me it’s not merely produce from The Gardeners’ Share in Lewinsville Park. Everything has a proper name:  it’s Lillian’s beets, Jay’s carrots, Terry’s bok choy, Jim and Danielle’s strawberries, Marjorie and Mary’s tomatoes, John’s squash and Barb’s Swiss chard.

All photos courtesy of The Gardeners' Share.

Julie Mendoza is founder of The Gardeners’ Share in McLean, Virginia, a community program of gardeners who share their fresh produce with neighbors in need. All posts »

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