Gardens, Gleaning, and Feeding the Hungry

Guest blog post by Jason Silverman

A Plot Against Hunger gardenWalk past the corner of Barton and 10th Street in Arlington, VA and you’ll see an assortment of vegetables growing just outside the fence of a sprawling community garden. These vegetables are part of an area-wide program called Plot Against Hunger, which gathers fresh produce from area farmers, farmer’s markets, and private and community gardens to help feed the area’s hungry.

Inspiration for the idea came to Lisa Crye when she saw the approach a church in California took to feeding the hungry: sell produce from members’ gardens and donate the proceeds to a local food pantry.  At around the same time, the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) was looking for a way to offer more fresh vegetables to the approximately 1,400 needy families it serves in the County.  So in a brainstorming session in 2007, Crye and Puwen Lee, AFAC’s volunteer service coordinator, hatched a plan that would grow into AFAC’s Plot Against Hunger program.

Plot Against Hunger now provides AFAC with fresh produce from area farmers, farmer’s markets, and private and community gardens.  In its first year, it contributed 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to AFAC’s warehouses.  Since then, the number has grown dramatically, with Crye estimating that all the sources combined have yielded 200,000 pounds of produce each year.

The program’s largest source of produce comes from harvesting excess vegetables from commercial farms in the area, a practice called “gleaning.”  Plot Against Hunger coordinates gleaning events through the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (MAGNET), which has relationships with area farms. The organization also gleans excess produce from the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland.

Its second-largest source is unsold produce donated by vendors after the weekly Crystal City, Courthouse, and Columbia Pike farmer’s markets that otherwise might go to waste.

Plot Against Hunger also receives donations of vegetables grown in gardens across Arlington. Many county community gardens, such as the one at Barton and North 10th St. have plots dedicated to AFAC, as do gardens at faith-based institutions, schools, and private residences.

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

But Plot Against Hunger does more than provide fresh produce to AFAC and, in turn, to the tables of its clients. It also educates Arlington residents on how they can grow their own vegetables.  The food-producing garden at Arlington Central Library, for example, employs techniques that can be used to grow food in a wide range of conditions, such as raised beds, square-foot gardening (using small, densely-planted plots), and roof gardening. The garden at Clarendon Presbyterian Church employs straw-bale gardening, and alone yielded 125 pounds of produce for AFAC last year.

Plot Against Hunger also has a school program.  Several area elementary schools have gardens that contribute to AFAC while also giving students a hands-on learning experience in gardening.  In Crye’s experience, kids who have been exposed to gardening and seen vegetables being grown are more likely to, well, eat their vegetables.  Crye reported an anecdote of a child with a long history of broccoli-hating being mesmerized by an actual broccoli plant.

AFAC and Plot Against Hunger don’t get to choose what vegetables are gleaned or donated. But AFAC operates on a “choice model” – its clients can select the food they wish to receive.  Foods grown through local gardens or commercial farms don’t always line up completely with the food preferences of AFAC’s clients, who hail from a wide variety of backgrounds.  So what to do when trying to place Swiss Chard, or blue hubbard squash – a massive, grayish relative of the pumpkin – with families who have no idea what to do with them? AFAC teaches its clients about these vegetables and how they can be prepared.  Twice a week, AFAC holds cooking demonstrations and offers samples to clients.

Want to get involved? AFAC and Plot Against Hunger are always looking for more volunteers, so whether you’re interested in gleaning, growing, cooking, or just donating produce, you can learn more here.

“Saving Seeds” Bridges the Gap Between Generations of Gardener

Guest post by Carolyn Szczepanski

The demand for fresh, local food has put a premium on community garden space in all corners of the District.

Young people are reconnecting with their food sources, urban planners are preaching the gospel of green space and families are eager to prepare dinner with organic produce they’ve nurtured from seed.

But it takes more than dirt and desire to make a garden grow.

Cultivating that perfect heirloom tomato or harvesting a bumper crop of crisp greens requires one key ingredient: knowledge. In 2008, the Neighborhood Farm Initiative sprouted to fill that void for DC growers.

“While there’s plenty of great gardening books and online resources, NFI was started as a hands-on, educational center to really walk total newbie gardeners step-by-step through their first growing season,” says Liz Whitehurst, NFI’s volunteer coordinator.

And NFI is wise beyond its years. The community garden movement isn’t a new phenomenon, Whitehurst points out. The current trend is just the latest page in a much longer history — one that started with Victory Gardens after World War II.

“While recent initiatives have brought more media attention to people growing their own food in Washington DC right now, several dozen community gardens have existed here since the mid-1970s,” Whitehurst says. “We work alongside several community gardeners who have been cultivating their plots since before we were born, and we recognize that people in our generation didn’t invent the idea of eating homegrown food.”

So it’s fitting that NFI’s fundraiser next week bridges the gap between generations.

On Thursday, NFI hosts Saving Seeds: A Night of Food, Film and Conversation on Urban Gardening Through the Generations. The $25 ticket price — which benefits the nonprofit — includes local, seasonal hors d’oeuvres, an open wine bar, and a cinematic double-header.

The first film screening, Corner Plot, is an intimate and heart-warming window into the life of 89-year-old Charlie Koiner, who’s been gardening his one-acre plot inside the Beltway for decades. The second movie short follows Teen Green, a summer program NFI launched in 2010 to educate local youth about urban farming, from seed to sale.

“When we first saw Corner Plot, we were struck by the difference between Charlie Koiner’s way of life and the lifestyles of the teens we work with every day,” Whitehurst says. “But as we thought more about it, we began to see some powerful connections, and we wanted to give others the opportunity to make their own.”

Those organic connections will be fleshed out after the films, during a Q&A including Corner Plot filmmaker Ian Cook, Koiner’s daughter and several teens from NFI’s summer program.

“Education is at the core of our mission,” Whitehurst says. “We want to teach people to grow vegetables in the city, and we want to connect people to serve as resources to each other.”

Urban Farmers Fight to Save Community Garden

Guest post by Carolyn Szczepanski

At the Virginia Avenue Community Garden, the buzz of freeway traffic hangs overhead, but the air is thick with the rich scent of basil and tangy aroma of tomatoes. It’s that perfect time just before dusk, when the sun turns the world golden, and Diana Elliott savors the moment.

She ducks under the shade of a plum tree, so heavy with produce the branches sag, and picks one of the purple fruits. “This land has been so good to us,” she says, savoring the juice from the plum and tossing the pit under the tree.

But this land may be paved over for new military quarters.

Nearby, a group of volunteers gather under a wooden pagoda of this four-acre plot in south Capitol Hill. They paint signs and staple small green fliers to plastic bags of vegetable and flower seeds. Among them is Elliott’s son, Eamon Cole, who dabs color on a page that says, “Do not take my garden!”

In September, Elliott and the other member of the Virginia Avenue Community Garden heard the first rumblings that the U.S. Marines needed to expand their residential barracks and, among the proposed sites for construction, was the land currently occupied by the community garden. Now those rumbling have turned into a real threat: The garden is one of the last-standing locations on a shrinking list of development options.

The gardeners don’t dispute the Marines’ need for new barracks and they agree the military has been a great neighbor. But, Elliott says, this community garden sets the table and feeds the spirit of 60 member families. In the six years since this land was cultivated, the love affair with local food has made this plot nearly priceless. Some community gardens in Capitol Hill, Elliott says, have wait lists as long as seven years.

“There’s a huge demand and people keep adding community gardens every year,” Elliott says. “So the idea that they want to take away the biggest community garden around here and they don’t see that as a problem is really, really frustrating.”

In less than a decade, dozens of area families transformed this previously troubled landscape. “It was basically a drug park,” says Nicole Hamam, who’s been gardening here for four years. “Now, people have been moving in because they saw this and not the freeway. The sweat equity that’s in here and what it’s done for the value of this area is something you can’t put a number on.”

So the gardeners are determined to preserve this refuge from the Marines. When the gardeners created a “Save Virginia Avenue Park” Facebook page, it quickly garnered more than 400 fans. Within the first few days of their grassroots campaign, filmmakers from Roadside Organics produced a four-minute movie about their efforts.

“There are no strong advocates for parks,” Elliott says of the city establishment. “People still see parks as space for building and they don’t see the benefit of a green space for green space’s sake. There’s nobody advocating for us, which is why we’re doing this. We have to advocate for ourselves.”

Late last week, the gardeners got their first district council member on board. On Thursday, Council member Tommy Wells signed on to Save Virginia Avenue Park. So far, the online petition has nearly 200 signatures.

“You know, it’s just kind of a Zen place,” Hamam says of the garden. “It’s a place to watch things grow, to take care of things. It’s hard work. It’s accomplishment. It’s a special thing: An oasis in an urban environment.”

A Green Map of DC from the DDOE

To commemorate Earth Day 2010, Mayor Fenty and the District Department of the Environment have released the Green DC Map.

The map highlights DC’s environmental resources, such as green buildings, community gardens, farmers markets, bike share locations, scenic walks, river restoration projects, and boat launch sites.

The Green DC Map is available in two versions, a print map and an interactive online map.  The print version is available by request from DDOE and highlights high profile locations that are easy to visit.  It also features information about Anacostia restoration initiatives, the Green DC Agenda and the District’s Climate Action Initiative.

The online version of the Green DC Map includes many more sites than the print version and provides more detailed information about each location.  Online map users can customize the types of green venues and projects they would like to view and can create their own trails and tours by selecting specific locations.

The Buzz on Beekeeping in the District

Guest post by Carrie Madren

Pollinating crops, gardens, and flowering trees around DC, honeybees are being raised by a growing number of hobbyists who tend hives in the suburbs and in the District. Beehives now top the Fairmont Hotel and sit by The White House’s organic gardens.

The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation recently led a four-session short course on hobbyist beekeeping, hoping to get volunteers to tend the department’s new hives. Some 30 beekeeper-hopefuls attended the class, and will now volunteer to tend the city’s hives.

The District already has one buzzing hive located at Lederer Gardens on Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. in Northeast, according to Kelly Melsted, Camping and Environmental Education.

“We will be placing five more throughout the city to educate about the need of pollinators in the city,” says Melsted, who notes that residents are extremely interested in beekeeping.

Though the city has much equipment, many experienced beekeepers have been helpful and willing to share resources. Currently, Melsted has a waiting list of 50 people who want to volunteer in addition to the 30 short-course students.

“Honey will go home with volunteers,” says Melsted, “I think it will be a community thing.”