Like many food pantries, Lawrence's Just Food realizes just how hard it can be to obtain fresh produce at a low cost. So it started growing its own.
Last month, the pantry planted a garden on its property in east Lawrence, with a goal of feeding its clients fruits and vegetables and teaching them how to grow their own. Just Food expects to harvest about 1,000 pounds of produce — including watermelon, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and spinach — before the season is over.
"This is really part of our initiative to get more produce into the diets of folks," said Just Food CEO Jeremy Farmer. "We also want to show clients that gardening is easy to do."
The gardens are one more step the Lawrence food bank is taking away from the traditional food pantry model, in an effort to address local hunger issues while improving the health of their clients. Just Food, which serves more than 9,000 Douglas County residents a month, now acts as the central food-distribution facility for the county, allowing other local social-service agencies to focus on other needs. It has also switched over to a choice-based food system, which lets clients shop as if they were in a grocery store and pick out only the food they need, cutting down on waste. And it has been providing cooking classes to low-income residents to show them how to prepare healthy food on the cheap, with several participants graduating from the pantry and cutting down on their fast-food use.
Farmer said Just Food came to realize that the most economical food to obtain — processed, loaded with sugar and salt — was also the worst for people's health. So while the food bank may have been feeding the hungry, it might also have been contributing to diseases like obesity and diabetes.
On a recent trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, Just Food volunteer Ace Hickey saw a community organization growing produce in wooden pallets in a vacant lot. He brought the suggestion back to the Lawrence food pantry, where he planted a couple of pallets of his own in the early spring. Then his colleagues thought, "Why not just start a regular garden in the open yard out back?"
Just Food planted the seeds for the program — literally — in early June, relying on donations for everything from the fencing to the tillage. The garden also features conservation measures like rain barrels, which cut down on water use.
Farmer says the pantry also hopes to make its clients recognize the value of gardening, from an economic, nutritional and therapeutic standpoint.
"We're trying to show people that it doesn't take much to grow produce," said Autumn Rice, an AmeriCorps member at Just Food, as she sprayed the garden with water on an oppressively hot day recently. "We can teach them how to be self-sufficient."
Even with the gardens, Just Food is left with a conundrum: how to get fresh fruit and vegetables in the wintertime. The solution: a greenhouse.
That would require a hefty grant or donation (potentially in the range of $10,000). The food pantry would also like the greenhouse to be, well, green: powered by renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro.
"If we could build a greenhouse and have produce year-round, that would be a game-changer for the diets of people in this community," Farmer said.