Gardening for Food Pantries

Food insecurity exists to some extent in nearly every community.  People who are food insecure not only experience food shortage, but they usually are unable to include fresh fruits and vegetables for a healthy diet because they are out of reach.  Either produce costs too much or is not available.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  By sharing our garden or orchard surplus or planting a dedicated giving garden, home, community, and school gardeners can help food banks, pantries, and community food distribution programs provide fresh produce to ease this problem.

A giving garden can be a whole garden, a row or two as championed by the Garden Writers Association’s Plant a Row for the Hungry, or even one container dedicated to growing healthy (organic if possible) vegetables or fruits for those in need. Or it can be a planned effort such as a Master Gardener garden program done alone or in conjunction with another organization. Every donation, no matter how big or small, makes a difference to someone in need.  Besides helping to fill food banks, pantries, and programs, raising vegetables and/or fruits to donate is rewarding for everyone involved, including children, so it can be a family affair.

Before planting, you will want to do a little research.  Contact local food banks, pantries, or distribution programs to find out if they will accept local produce, what fruits and vegetables they prefer, and when and where to drop off donations.  Once you know the details of donating, purchase seeds or plants for the preferred produce, plant, and tend your garden.  Often the most sought after produce is some of the easiest to grow.

Harvest your produce at its prime as you would for yourself and practice safe-handling.  Many who are served by food banks and pantries are at a higher risk for foodborne illness as they include children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.   Here are a few tips from Michigan State University Extension to minimize food safety risks when donating produce:

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water before handling produce.
  • If pesticides were used on the product, be absolutely certain that you have followed the instructions on the pesticide label for application and safe harvest times. If you are unsure, discard the produce in the garbage—do not compost, eat or donate it.
  • Inspect each item of produce carefully. Discard any items that have signs of insects, bruising, mold, or spoilage. If you wouldn’t buy it, toss it!
  • Brush off as much mud and soil as possible from the produce.
  • Only use clean, food-grade containers or bags to store and transport produce.
  • Keep different types of produce separate.

If you have to wait a day or two to deliver your produce, refrigerate the produce so that it will stay as fresh as possible.

Some food banks offer donation receipts that you can use at tax time so remember to ask for a receipt if that is something you want. Gardeners who donate produce from their gardens or orchards to nonprofit organizations for distribution to people in need are protected from criminal and civil liability by the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Under terms of the act, donors are protected from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient.

For additional help on donating and handling produce, download these free fact sheets from Michigan State University: Donating Produce  and Safe Handling of Fruits and Vegetables. If you are interested in a Master Gardener program, contact your county extension office.

Mother Teresa said it best, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”  Donating garden surplus or harvesting from a giving garden can do just that.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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