How some Northern California gardeners pool their resources and talents to feed the hungry
It's the middle of summer in Sonoma County, California, the peak of the vegetable-growing season. Here, on a 1/2-acre plot behind a Santa Rosa church, gardeners young and old have gathered to bring in a bountiful harvest. But the juicy tomatoes, succulent peppers, and sweet squash they're picking aren't for themselves. This fresh produce is destined for nearby soup kitchens, church pantries, and food banks that feed the hungry.
The volunteers who tend this particular garden are a diverse group of civic-minded people who donate time and resources to feed their less fortunate neighbors. Together, they form Growing Food for the Hungry, which has grown and distributed to the needy more than 20,000 pounds of fresh vegetables since its inception just five years ago.
The birth of a notion
Marge Cerletti, one of GFFTH's founders, recalls the origin of the project. "We started this vegetable garden because we wanted to offer a nutritious, fresh alternative to Twinkies, candy bars, and canned food," she says. Cerletti's concern about the increasing hunger problem in Sonoma County was shared by Muchtar Salzman, formerly of the UC Cooperative Extension in Santa Rosa. Salzman, it turns out, had dreamed of starting a large garden as a solution to the problem. Once the seed of that idea was planted, it didn't take long for Cerletti to locate a patch of earth behind a local church for their garden.
It also wasn't very difficult to find the volunteers to work the land, thanks to the UC Master Gardeners and the Organic Garden and Nutrition Club of Sonoma County. Since then, dozens of other individuals have offered their services, including children from 4-H and Scout troops and teenagers from local high schools. "It's turned out to be a project for all ages--a true community effort," says Janet Sanchez, one of GFFTH's coordinators.
Volunteers needn't be experienced gardeners. Plenty of jobs such--as shoveling compost, monitoring irrigation, and harvesting--don't require gardening skills. "Volunteers have a great opportunity to learn," says Cerletti. "Not only do we give them organic gardening classes, but the volunteers learn a lot working side by side with Master Gardeners and knowledgeable members of our organic gardening club."
Though many volunteers are now involved, much of GFFTH's success is due to the dedication of Cerletti. "Marge, an 81-year-old live wire, is the heart of the program," says Sharon Malm Read of Catholic Charities, one of the groups that benefit from GFFTH's harvest. "Without Marge's devotion to the project, it just wouldn't run as smoothly."
A diverse crop, from spring through fall
After the vegetables begin producing, the real work starts: distribution. "We harvest two to three days a week," says Sanchez. "It takes a tremendous amount of organization and a strong network of dependable contacts to pick up the food on time; otherwise it rots. …