Marilyn Joy had a problem with her garden.
The Lee’s Summit resident’s extraordinary love of gardening meant it was producing an increasing amount of uneaten fresh vegetables. Then Joy found the perfect match of her longstanding interest in helping others with her love of working the soil: Plant A Row for the Hungry.
“This is something I can feel good about doing,” Joy says. “I can’t do much else, but I sure can grow food.”
The Plant A Row for the Hungry was started in 1995 by GardenComm, formerly the Garden Writers Association, with a simple directive: Gardeners are encouraged to plant an extra row of produce with the intent of donating to food pantries, shelters and other social service agencies.
It’s a bountiful bounty for Harvesters, which has been involved in the Plant A Row program for about 15 years.
Harvesters received more than 6,600 pounds — or more than 3 tons — of donated fresh produce through this program during the 2018 growing season alone. The program works closely with the Master Gardener program, which also helps with a demonstration garden at Harvesters. That garden grew more than 800 pounds of fresh produce for donation last year.
Joy estimates she donated about 600 pounds of produce in 2018, and she’s already given more than 40 pounds this summer.
“It’s cucumbers and tomatoes, pretty typical of early harvest,” Joy says.
There are more donations coming from her gardens, including peppers, basil, zucchini, eggplant, watermelon – and more tomatoes.
“Whatever I have out there,” Joy says. “I don’t think a lot of people think about what to do with leftover produce.”
Belton gardener Ginny Cartwright discovered Plant A Row three years ago when she and her husband, Ron, were volunteering at Harvesters’ warehouse.
The Cartwrights have always grown a few flowers and tomatoes in pots, but they got more serious about growing vegetables when they moved six years ago to 10 acres in Belton.
The Cartwrights now have about 250 square feet of raised beds growing vegetables, and the couple’s ever-increasing garden means ever-increasing donations.
“My garden gets bigger every year so I bring in a bit more every year,” Cartwright says.
She estimates she and her husband donated about 200 pounds of fresh produce last growing season.
“It’s good to know that I can do something I enjoy and do something good for people who need it,” Cartwright says.
“Everyone should have access to fresh vegetables and I grow far more than we can use ourselves. It doesn’t take much more effort to make the garden a bit bigger than we need and it feels good to share the wealth.”
Donations vary but all are welcome, says Mary McClure, a Master Gardener who oversees the Plant A Row donations at Harvesters.
“We get everything. Some people fill up the back of their pick-up truck. Other people bring a bag of zucchini instead of leaving it on a co-worker’s desk.”
This giving is vital to the health of those in need.
“Of course fresh produce can be expensive, but it is so important for nutrition,” McClure says. “I think some people are kind of surprised because when people think of food pantries they think of canned donations.”
Joy has been growing and donating for a decade. She gardens in two 10-by-10-foot plots alongside many other giving gardeners at the Sylvia Bailey Park Community Gardens in Lee’s Summit.
“I like to think because of what I do someone can see they can do it, too,” Joy says.
Joy shares her wealth with Lee’s Summit Social Services.
“It is great when we get fresh, healthy food for our clients because it is a change up from the nonperishable, boxed items,” says Megan Salerno, assistant director at Lee’s Summit Social Services. “As soon as it comes in, it goes right back out.”
The fresh produce donation program has been so successful in both donation and need that Lee’s Summit Social Services recently received two large commercial refrigerators made possible through grants from the Greater Lee’s Summit Healthcare Foundation.
It’s important for interested donors to ask questions, like the availability of refrigeration, before donating.
For example, Salerno suggests that donations are made at the beginning of the work week because it correlates with when the agency is open to clients.
Harvesters has a list of drop-off spots for fresh produce on its website, and can help any gardeners with additional information about local food pantries that will take fresh produce donations.
Cartwright has a simple suggestion to any gardener who wants to start donating.
“Start with vegetables that you like to eat,” she says. “You’ll probably end up harvesting more than you can consume on your own.”
For more information about Plant A Row for the Hungry: