The cold winter months might seem years away for many, but for those planting winter gardens, now is the time to plan and plant. In doing so, local food pantries hope gardeners will plant an extra row of vegetables to donate to the hungry.
Jan Nelson, a longtime volunteer at Columbia County Cares Food Pantry in Appling, said "Plant a Row for the Hungry" is a program that started in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1995. County extension offices across the nation encourage participation and residents heed the challenge.
The Web site www.gardenwriters.com relates the history of the program's success: "It took the first five years to reach the major milestone of a cumulative total of one million pounds of donated produce. In the next six years, more than a million pounds of food was donated each year. This is a significant contribution considering that each pound of food makes four meals. In 2005, more than 1.5 million pounds of produce were donated generating meals for over 5.5 million needy recipients."
Locally, gardeners are slowly learning of "Plant a Row."
"Some of the volunteers at the food pantry do have gardens and will bring in bags of cucumbers or squash, which we add to orders," said Nelson. "There are also community members who donate large quantities of collard and turnip greens in the winter."
Lou Reda, director of Columbia County Cares, said that although donations of fresh produce are limited, those who come in for food packages love it when it is available.
He said that one local man brought in 113 pounds of turnip greens in January.
Currently, the donation of fresh produce to Columbia County Cares is slim. A recent donation of watermelon and peaches to Golden Harvest Food Bank, which is a partner organization with Columbia County Cares, means that some fresh produce is being distributed to those in need, but more is welcome.
"The food pantry does not have produce on a regular basis," said Nelson, "but whenever Golden Harvest receives some, we are among the first in line to share the bounty. With the new walk-in cooler, the food pantry can pick up enough to last several days rather than needing it all in one day."
Reda calls donations of fresh produce to the pantry "sporadic." Last month, Columbia County Cares, which provides temporary relief to those in need, served 469 families for a total of more than 1,400 individuals. Last year, the pantry served an average of 413 families per month.
"It fluctuates each month," said Reda, adding that earlier this year, the pantry saw an average of 300 to 350 visitors in a given month.
However, rising fuel and food costs are causing some in the community to seek out the food pantry as a last resort. In that vein, more donations are needed and local gardeners can step up to the plate by participating in the "Plant a Row for the Hungry" program this year by preparing to plant a little more than they plan to consume.
Columbia County Cares accepts donations between 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. For information, call Reda at (706) 541-2834.
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