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Sharing the harvest.

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."

Over the years, GFFTH has learned a great deal about which vegetables are most useful to soup kitchens and food banks. In most cases, lettuce is too fragile to handle. Swiss chard is better than spinach because the harvest lasts longer. And many facilities don't use eggplant. Green beans and carrots are appreciated by the kitchens, but the beans are very time-consuming to harvest and the carrots require scrubbing to get the mud off, although the GFFTH volunteers grow them both anyway.

The crops grown in the greatest quantities are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, garlic, leeks, onions, sweet and hot peppers, potatoes, summer and winter squash, and tomatoes. Planting dates are staggered so that the harvest doesn't come all at once.

Finding the resources

Groups such as GFFTH are totally dependent on donations from the community. Many people who don't have time to help in the garden pledge a monthly donation that helps pay the water bill and purchase miscellaneous supplies. Local companies have also gotten into the act by donating irrigation equipment and time on rented tractors and tillers. In addition, GFFTH has raised money through raffles, potluck dinners, and plant sales.

Even the seeds and seedlings are donated, thanks to the hard work of Joe Spicer, who is the Northern California representative for America the Beautiful Fund's Operation Green Plant. He locates outdated (but still viable) seeds and leftover seedlings from local suppliers and nurseries, and distributes them to groups such as GFFTH and to low-income families who grow food for themselves.

How to get involved

To learn how to start your own garden modeled after GFFTH, or to volunteer, write or call Marge Cerletti at Growing Food for the Hungry, Box 3626, Santa Rosa 95402; (707) 539-6598.

America the Beautiful Fund will supply both information and seeds to help you start your own charitable garden. Ask the group if there's an existing garden in your community where you can participate. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to ABF, Operation Green Plant, 219 Shoreham Building, Washington, D.C. 20005. To those starting their own charitable gardens, ABF will supply 50 packets of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds for $4.95 (to cover postage and handling) or as many as 750 packets or bulk seeds for large gardens (write for shipping costs).

If you have extra fruits or vegetables in your garden, The Salvation Army can direct you to the nearest food bank or soup kitchen that can take your harvest. If you live in the Sacramento Valley, an organization called the Senior Gleaners will harvest your excess fruit and vegetables for you, or you can take produce to 3185 Longview Drive, Sacramento; call (916) 971-1530 before delivering.
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Title Annotation:Northern California gardeners pool resources to feed the hungry
Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Publication:Sunset
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:932
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