Tribune Print Share Text

Title

Making a difference one garden at a time

Fresh produce donation program provides food to those who need it

Created date

November 8th, 2017
Fresh grown produce including okra, string beans, jalapeño peppers and sweet potatoes on top of a kitchen counter.

This fall, Ashby Ponds donated sweet potatoes, peppers, and okra to Loudoun Hunger Relief.

 

According to the U.S. Census, the population growth in Loudoun County hovers above 3% or an average of 950 new residents a month. Yet despite the continued growth, the number of food-insecure people in the county has decreased by 14% over the last two years, according to Feeding America statistics. This success is due to the efforts of unique, community-based programs, including Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR) and Feed Loudoun–Plant a Row.

For 25 years, LHR has served as Loudoun County’s primary emergency food pantry, providing food assistance to the hungry and food insecure in Loudoun. 

Feed Loudoun–Plant a Row promotes the growth and donation of local fresh fruits and vegetables through gardeners, farmers, and agri-businesses for the purpose of feeding the county’s hungry. 

All donations are given to local food banks, including LHR. 

Volunteers like Kimberly Finan, a community member at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va., are integral to the success of these organizations’ efforts.

Recently, Kimberly and members of Ashby Ponds’ garden club designated a special garden to grow food exclusively in support of the Plant a Row program.

“The goal of the Plant a Row program is to engage gardening households, schools, and libraries to provide fresh produce for their clients,” says Kimberly. “The idea is to grow what you want for your own use, and then donate the excess to a food bank. If you have enough space, add an extra row of vegetables specifically for the food bank.”

An idea takes root

Kimberly first witnessed the success of the Plant a Row program while living in Arlington.

“The Arlington food bank (AFAC) has a very strong relationship with the community and a very active Plant a Row program,” she says.

In 2016, the Ashby Ponds Progressives, a group of more than a hundred residents involved in issues of national and local interest, hosted Jennifer Montgomery, executive director of LHR, to speak about their work in the community.  

“When she mentioned that they partnered with the Feed Loudoun–Plant a Row program, I saw an opportunity to engage the Ashby Ponds gardening club in this community endeavor,” says Kimberly. 

Beautiful bounty

The Ashby Ponds garden club offers those with a green thumb the opportunity to get their hands dirty seeding, weeding, and pruning, resulting in beds of fresh vegetables, summer fruits, bushes, shrubs, and blooming flowers. 

Fully supported by the Ashby Ponds general services staff, the residents maintain 40 in-ground gardens and 51 above-ground garden tubs. “Approximately one-third of the gardeners grow herbs and vegetables while the rest grow flowers,” she says.  

In years past, those who planted more than they could eat generously shared their vegetables and flowers by placing them in a basket and offering the fruits of their labor for free to their neighbors. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of produce rotted prior to being harvested,” says Kimberly.  

In an effort to capture that wasted produce and encourage flower growers to switch to vegetables, the garden club invited Julia Brizendine, the landscaper who manages the Feed Loudoun–Plant a Row program, to Ashby Ponds. She not only discussed the important ways in which Ashby Ponds gardeners could contribute to the program, she also provided free flower and vegetable seeds.

In early spring, the seeds Brizendine provided were used to plant a spring crop of kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, beets, radishes, and bok choy in a specially designated garden plot.

“We were able to donate the resulting produce to LHR in May,” says Kimberly. “This summer, we planted okra, three kinds of peppers, bush beans, cucumbers, rosemary, thyme, dill, and sweet potatoes. These items have been going to LHR once or twice a week since the end of June.”

Even while she was away for two months during the summer, a group of Ashby Ponds volunteers signed up to weed, water, harvest, and transport the produce to Leesburg where LHR is located.  Each volunteer signed up to look after the designated plot for a week, and community member Mary Tondreau made many trips to Leesburg to drop off produce.   

“Community members at Ashby Ponds understand how blessed we are and that ‘sharing our gifts’ means reaching beyond our gates to help our neighbors in the greater community,” says Mary.

By summer’s end, Ashby Ponds gardeners began contributing excess produce from their own gardens to LHR. To date, they have provided more than 85 pounds of produce. The two most successful crops are jalapeño peppers and okra. 

This fall, the gardens offered additional sweet potatoes, okra, Swiss chard, kale, and peppers for donation.

Continued growth

“This program was very much an experiment this year,” says Kimberly. “Next year, the garden club plans to continue the program and build on the lessons learned this year. For example, we will start with planting seedlings rather than seeds. Buying seedlings that are extremely reliable, produce continuously, and resist fungal diseases will be the crop selection goal.

Now that everyone has a year’s knowledge of how the program can work, the garden club can more effectively explain the opportunities and systems for all gardeners to contribute according to their interest and energy by volunteering to tend a garden when someone is away; donating unwanted produce; and adopting an unassigned tub or garden to grow something specifically for LHR.”

“Feed Loudoun provides between 25,000 and 30,000 pounds of fresh nutritious vegetables annually to the food pantries,” says Brizendine. “We could not do it without volunteer gardens like those at Ashby Ponds. Their contributions put healthy vegetables on the tables of our neighbors in need.”

Comments