With grocery stores like Whole Foods Market and Sprouts donating produce to Austin food pantries and setting up community gardens, one could assume that the value of produce donations from at-home gardeners is diminishing. But in reality, the demand for fresh produce is on the rise in Austin’s food pantries, and individual growers can give back to the community by donating their home-harvested fruits and vegetables to food pantries — no matter how small their surplus.
Veronica Walker, a social worker and coordinator at the Feed the Community food pantry, explains that the pantry “started from a small electrical closet … Word of mouth brought people and volunteers, and soon [the program] started getting bigger.” Now the food pantry, which operates as a nonprofit from inside the Gateway Church on McNeil and US-183, provides food for anyone in need of assistance.
Walker says that people come to their pantry every week to pick up supplies through a systematic program linked to the Central Texas Food Bank. Now the pantry is even part of Feeding America — a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs that provide food and services to people every year. What separates Feed the Community from most others in Austin is their weekly buffet-style grocery service. Individuals and families who have already filled out prerequisite forms are welcomed into a large hall where they are given a list of available grocery items and two bags to fill with their weekly food needs. They make their selections on the list and then proceed to a cafeteria-style room where volunteers fill their bags with the items they have requested. While canned items and non-perishables with longer shelf lives are more readily available, fresh produce is always on every list, so it runs out fast. That’s where home gardeners and community gardens can help.
Walker, who is acutely aware of the need for fresh produce, also oversees a community garden on the church’s property, which was set up by Sprouts Healthy Community Foundation. The garden grows fruits and vegetables to supplement the donations to the food pantry from other sources. A group of dedicated volunteers work on the garden’s daily upkeep. Walker says the garden regularly supplies tomatoes, green peppers, broccoli, melons, eggplant, cabbage and other seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs. Yet there’s always room for more, and Austinites can certainly help.
According to the City of Austin’s website, “Austin’s Community Gardens are currently producing over 100,000 pounds of fresh, local, organic produce for Austin residents every year,” and countless more Austinites have small balcony or backyard gardens that produce more than they can consume.
While the value of donations from individual producers may seem minimal, Walker explains how every little bit helps. In fact, you would be surprised at how much produce one plant supplies. A single tomato plant produces, on the low end, about 15 pounds of tomatoes — about 60 fruits. Imagine how many tomatoes you could realistically use before they go bad and how much you could share, not to mention the community bonds that form when folks share their backyard produce. Walker reminisces about individuals who have not only brought various unique produce over the years, but also provided recipes to go along with their crops. “Bob wouldn’t just drop off stuff from his garden, but he would also bring recipes so people would know what to do with [his produce],” she says.
So this spring, when you’re growing and harvesting your beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, turnips or whatever you choose to plant, consider sharing some of your bounty with a nearby food pantry. That fresh produce, grown with care in your garden, might not only enrich your diet, but could also satisfy hunger in other homes throughout Austin.
Written by Sumaiya Malik • Photography by Carole Topalian
To look for food pantries near you, please visit ampleharvest.org