This plum's for you: 'Giving gardens' fight hunger as Congress argues

While Congress debates cutting food stamps, some people focus on growing food to help their neighbors.
Crosscut archive image.

Interbay P-Patch has a garden shed.

While Congress debates cutting food stamps, some people focus on growing food to help their neighbors.

As efforts in Congress have tried to reduce food assistance programs, demand at food banks in communities all over the nation, is high. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, as it’s properly called, has grown from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million today. To conservatives it’s indication of runaway growth in government, but to those run food banks its reason to find more sources of food to meet the demand.

In Seattle some food banks receive organic produce from “giving gardens” or gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables and donating it to those in need. At these food banks, organic produce is as popular as it anywhere.  

Click here to listen to the audio version of this story.

After getting off work, Meghan James finds a ladder and climbs into the boughs of a ripening plum tree. A dozen plum trees are ready for picking at one of the city’s large p-patches, Interbay, hidden below Magnolia bluffs between railroad tracks and the 15th Avenue West corridor. “All these trees here on the berm are fruit trees," James says. "We have Italian plums. We also have Japanese plums and a couple of apple trees. Go ahead and eat one if you want.” They’re sweet and juicy. Tomorrow pounds of them will be available for customers at the Ballard Food Bank. 

Food insecurity, a term that defines households stretched so financially they can’t be certain everyone will have enough to eat, remains high in the nation. In Washington it impacts 14.6 percent of all households, according to the Children's Alliance report “Hungry in Washington.” Interbay has one of Seattle’s most generous “giving gardens” or gardens dedicated to sharing food with people who would otherwise go hungry.

Last year, the gardens at Interbay (sometimes called the "Garden between the Bays") donated 5,000 pounds of fresh organic produce. Meaghan James got hooked when she started to volunteer. She didn’t know how to garden or much about fruit trees, but she learned. “One of the things I especially like about this program is how it really generates this culture of generosity, of giving, you know, helping others who are less fortunate.” It's survival instinct to provide for yourself above others, says James. But in our society, we don’t need to hoard, she adds, we can share the bounty.

Tomatoes — five varieties —  basil, rosemary, green beans, zuccinni, onions and squash are ready for harvest. Red chard, kale and lettuces grow yeararound in organic, well-mulched soil. After one crop is harvested, another goes in. “We’re just going to squeak in another crop before the end of the year. We can get some speedy bush beans that take about 48 days,” says Jude Berman, one of the lead gardeners at Interbay P-Patch. “We can do some romaine lettuces. We’re going to take some chances and put in a crop of beets.”

Another gardener, Mary, preps the soil while she shares a mouth-watering recipe. Think beets are only good for their nutrient rich antioxidant value? “Actually there’s a chocolate beet cake that we’re going to celebrate with at the end of the season.” Boil the beets, chop and puree them until they’re super smooth. ”Then you use that as a liquid part of a cake with flour and all the other stuff you put in a cake and it’s fantastic.”

Sharing organic, locally grown edibles has been part of the culture at Interbay since the “chicken soup brigade” days of the 1980s. Back then the food was grown for people struggling with HIV, who often weren’t getting enough nutritious food.  Berman says, “That program just mushroomed into this large area set aside for growing and p-patchers began donating and then people began volunteering.”

At the Ballard Food Bank, food sharing is in high gear with the p-patch plums and tomatoes not going unnoticed. “I think it’s wonderful that people who have the p-patch farms grow and donate.” A customer says, “Hey if if weren’t here, I’d go hungry so I’m very grateful.” There’s no apparent shortage of nutritious food here — eggs, poultry, cheese, grains — but, says director Nancy McKinney, not all food banks are lucky to have donations from p-patches. “There is a discrepancy in the food system just as there is in all sorts of systems in our society. But for the food banks that have p-patches close by, we have been blessed with their passion to grow and to clean and to package and let us come and pick up the food.”

People 19 to 54 years old make up the biggest population at this food bank, followed by families with children and seniors.  At a time when House Republicans voted to make major reductions to food assistance, plans that would cut off an estimated 10 percent of recipients, demand at food banks is high. “If you don’t have the money to buy it, where else are you going to get your vegetables?” says Penelope Salmon, a mother of three. She says her husband is a hard worker, but “the jobs that exist today are contract. Nobody wants to put money into your 401k or the longevity of you. Without the food bank, it would be a question of, do we want to eat boxed generic food or skip paying a bill here or there?” The food bank, says Salmon, helps her family save several hundred dollars a week.

Her appreciation is palpable, as it seems to be for all the customers at this food bank. 

The sentiment may not be reaching some in Congress, but the need is apparent to “giving gardens” in Seattle. Last year they donated close to 60,000 pounds to food banks and community kitchens. By the looks of new crops being planted for the winter at Interbay, the giving shows no sign of stopping.

Reporting for this story received support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering for the audio by CJ Lazenby at the studios of Jack Straw Productions.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.