N.D. calls on gardeners to get local produce on food pantries' shelves
FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota is calling on its gardeners to spare some of their yield this summer - preferably half a million pounds of it. The state has kicked off an ambitious drive to whisk locally grown produce to food pantry shelves, where non...
FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota is calling on its gardeners to spare some of their yield this summer - preferably half a million pounds of it.
The state has kicked off an ambitious drive to whisk locally grown produce to food pantry shelves, where non-perishables still hold sway. Church groups, community gardens, novice growers and entire communities have pledged to pitch in.
"This is going to be an incredible new source of produce," says Steve Sellent, director of the Great Plains Food Bank.
Sue Balcom, the local foods marketing specialist at the state Department of Agriculture, says the idea for the Hunger Free North Dakota Gardens Project sprang from a mild predicament shared by avid gardeners like her.
"I look for any excuse to plant one more thing in my garden and watch it grow," she says. The result: more produce than she can use.
That food, she realized, would come in handy at the 244 pantries in the state.
The project is not a novel idea. Programs such as Plant a Row for the Hungry have been around for a while. Last year, a group of volunteers at Moorhead's Probstfield Community Gardens shipped half their yield - more than 6,000 pounds - to the Great Plains Food Bank.
But, Sellent says, the statewide project would be a nutritional boon. Fargo-Moorhead grocery stores donate excess produce that makes its way to area pantries. But at many farther-flung, rural pantries, often open just one day a week, produce is virtually nonexistent. It made up less than 12 percent of the 6.6 million pounds of food the Food Bank distributed to pantries statewide in 2009.
"There's a whole portion of our population that has no access to healthy food," says Abby Gold, of North Dakota State University Extension Service, a partner in the Gardens Project.
The Ag Department, which hasn't earmarked money especially for the project, has collected more than 120 pledges.
A Wahpeton community garden has offered up 2,000 pounds of veggies. A Bismarck 4-H group promised 400 pounds of potatoes. The city of New Rockford set aside a quarter acre plot. Doug Goehring, the agriculture commissioner, planted more than 1.5 acres of sweet corn on his farm west of Bismarck. Staffers will pick the roughly 24,000 cobs the plot should yield.
Budding gardeners from Fargo's Madison and Holy Spirit elementary schools planted an assortment of veggies, from Swiss chard to radishes, on a Northern Plains Botanic Gardens Society plot near Yunker Farms.
A dozen volunteers at Fargo's Peace Lutheran Church rallied to help out their church pantry, where food has rapidly vanished from shelves lately. Right by the church, they planted a plot with tomatoes, peppers, beans, beets, eggplant and - per the department's half-joking directions - only one zucchini plant.
Betty Patterson, one of the volunteers, will donate extras from her garden. "Usually, I just invite friends to come and pick," she said.
The department staff is brainstorming harvest season ideas: soliciting volunteers to keep rural pantries open more often than one day a week, enlisting Boy Scouts for home deliveries and hosting canning classes.
"We'll have to scurry like crazy to get the deliveries lined up in a timely manner," says Balcom.
She concedes 500,000 pounds is a massive goal but trusts the loose-knit army of gardeners can pull it off. "I truly believe in an agricultural state like North Dakota, we can feed ourselves - with really high-quality food," she said.