Community Efforts Relieve 'Food Insecurity'

In North Carolina about one in six children live in households where it is not clear where their next meal is coming from. This is called “food insecurity.” 

Among the 50 states, North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for families suffering food insecurity. Rowan and Cabarrus counties are reported to have almost 53,000 food-insecure people, including 20,000 kids, many of whom take part in a school lunch program. Summer without school lunch programs means increased hunger. 

Local leadership in social service agencies tell me the numbers are real, and perhaps even low. They also point out that donations to charities dropped last year by more than 10 percent from previous years — so there are more people needing help, and less money donated to the helping agencies feeding people.

Some communities have figured out how to increase the supply of food for needy families in times when donations of money were declining.

Harvest Now, based in Westport, Conn., was started by Brooks Sumberg, a recently retired salesman (and former Peace Corps volunteer in his youth). Sumberg learned that donations to food kitchens serving the poor had significantly declined when the economy in his part of Connecticut collapsed several years ago. Hungry people were being turned away from soup kitchens and food banks due to lack of food.

Working from his home, he began to call area churches to see if he could persuade them to start a congregation garden and donate the harvest to those feeding the poor. It worked.

Starting in 2009 with planning for the 2010 growing season, he coordinated eight area churches as they established gardens. The first year, they produced 2,100 pounds of food, enough to put fresh vegetables on 8,400 dinner plates. In three years the program has grown to 48 churches and one prison, and harvest season 2012 is on track to see more than 12,000 pounds of food produced — in a part of the country with a short growing season.

The program has learned some valuable lessons in its brief life. High spoilage rates of produce such as lettuce have led the group to focus on easier to store foods like squash and potatoes that do not require refrigeration. Challenges include the need to recruit new volunteers as some of the early participants moved on to other areas of interest, assurances of a reliable source of water and transportation of the harvest.

To help a community get started, there are websites that contain training materials, planting schedules, lists of resources and coaches and a host of other materials. One example is Gardening Matters (www.GardeningMatters.org). Another is the American Community Gardening Association (www.communitygarden.org). I discovered that well-organized efforts can get seeds donated by public spirited companies like Baker Creek Seeds, Botanical Interests, Ferry Morse and Seed Savers Exchange.

Now comes the “think big” part.

It is possible to increase the value of all this effort by doing several things through a master plan. First, identify the recipients of the harvest. How much harvest do they need, when? The answers shape the choice of crops planted. Second, find out when the harvest would be most helpful. Some food providing organizations I spoke to said that they get drowned in tomatoes for a month or so, and then nothing — not because tomatoes could not be grown, but because no one asked the gardeners to plant early or late season varieties. Third, scheduling pickup or delivery is critical; it is a heartbreak for the volunteers when lovingly tended beans or peppers spoil because not enough thought was given to this step. And it is easier if new gardeners focus on just a few crops, because the pickup and delivery system does not have to visit dozens of gardens for a few cucumbers each, and the gardeners can become expert on one kind of vegetable, which is a lot easier than learning about dozens all at once.

Taking care of our neighbors can involve both the heart and the head. Creation of a coordinated plan can vastly multiply the loving work willingly done. We can create a better future for our families, our neighbors and our country by imitating successful programs already in place. Will you help?