Master gardeners help fill food pantries

Vendor Jane Wohletz of Tomato Allie, right, and Douglas County master gardner Cindy Haines ready bags of green onions to be donated to the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen after the closing bell of the downtown Farmers Market. Haines and other master gardeners have encouraged local gardeners to plant an extra row to help serve the hungry. Haines collected several bags of produce from other vendors on May 23, as well.

A Lawrence gardener is beginning to see the fruits of her labor and master plan to help curb hunger in Lawrence.

Last summer, Cynthia Haines had some extra zucchini and didn’t want it to go to waste. She decided to donate it to a local food pantry.

The problem was that she didn’t know what hours or days the pantries were open and whether they could use her produce or not.

After some research, Haines found that the need for such produce was great and that donations were greatly appreciated.

She ended up taking the zucchini to The Salvation Army and the cook sliced it up and used it in a stir-fry that day.

“It was really, really satisfying,” she said. “It’s really important to know that what you can grow will be shared with others and not wasted.”

Haines talked to fellow Lawrence master gardeners about starting a program to help get fresh produce to food pantries. They liked the idea and formed a Produce Distribution Committee.

The committee began working with the Just Food program that was founded about four years ago by Lawrence resident Ann Weick, former dean of the School of Social Welfare at Kansas University. Just Food serves as a coordinating group to make it easier for community members, businesses and churches to donate food and funds.

“The goal is to create a consistent supply of food to our local pantries,” Weick said.

Healthy, nutritious

Creating the partnership with the master gardeners was an obvious fit. They have begun by collecting and distributing extra produce from vendors at the downtown Farmers Market. The vendors get a tax deduction for the goods they donate.

“We are very pleased with this partnership because typically the food that is gathered in a food drive would be canned or boxed,” Weick said. “The Farmers Market makes it possible for us to begin adding fresh fruits and vegetables to the food that’s given out through the pantries.”

On Memorial Day weekend, Haines and Weick collected more than a dozen bags of fresh produce — mostly lettuce, onions and tomatoes — and delivered it to Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen, 221 W. 10th St. The lettuce was used in a salad, and the rest was left on a table for anyone to take. The tomatoes were quickly being snatched up.

Greg Moore, director of LINK, said the produce has been a hit with those in need. LINK provides about 160 meals four times a week. It served 3,128 meals in April.

“It’s excellent,” he said. “It’s good food, and it’s healthy. I am so glad they are doing this for us.”

Seasonal need

The fresh produce also comes at a time when food donations are down and the need is up. That’s mostly because children are home from school and need to be fed.

Last summer, The Salvation Army had to close its food pantry several times because it ran out of food.

“When it comes to volunteers or donations of food or money, we just love any support we get,” said Aaron Smith, director of community relations for The Salvation Army, which serves about 100 meals three times a week.

Unfortunately, Weick said, hunger is a problem and it tends to be a hidden one. Among three food pantries — East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., The Salvation Army and Trinity Interfaith — they served 30,000 individual meals in 2008.

“When you talk to someone, you don’t really know if they’ve had breakfast that morning or if they’ve had a meal in the last two days,” she said. “It can be a challenging issue to respond to. But, it’s one that we can make a difference in.”

That’s what Haines intends to do.

She has asked other master gardeners to plant an extra row this year.

Haines also plans to help pick up any excess produce that area farmers offer, as she did last fall with fellow Lawrence master gardener Ken Lohrentz.

The two picked up apples, watermelon and tomatoes from area farmers and delivered them to pantries. Lohrentz described the experience as eye-opening.

“I really did feel like it was something important to be able to do and really quite humbling to see that there is such a need by many people in the community who don’t have the means to provide for themselves fully,” he said.

Lohrentz described Haines as the spark behind what is being called the Master Garden Produce Distribution Project.

And Haines doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. In fact, she said the possibilities for the project are endless.

“I can just imagine it exploding,” she said. “We know this can grow big, and we’ve literally just gotten started.”

For more information about the project, contact the Douglas County K-State Research and Extension office at 843-7058.