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November 19, 2008

Dig, plant, grow, give—sharing the bounty of food

http://www.jewishjournal.com/philanthropy/article/dig_plant_grow_give_sharing_the_bounty_of_food_20081118

If there's one thing Gabe Goldman wishes more Angelenos would do next spring, it's get their hands dirty.

The American Jewish University (AJU) professor and director of experiential education is signing up students, synagogues and anyone else with a piece of land and a green thumb to plant small, personal gardens next March and donate their produce to local food pantries. The project, Helping Hands Gardens, aims to stock the shelves of overburdened Los Angeles pantries with organic fare as need across the region soars.

"I found out from food agencies that the number of people coming through their doors in the last six months has been overwhelming because of the economic downturn," Goldman said.

Goldman brought his sophomore service-learning students to SOVA Food Pantry in 2007 to get a feel for what the agency, an arm of Jewish Family Service, does. They found that the pantry's clients weren't just unemployed adults anymore -- they were often the children of families who can no longer make ends meet.

SOVA's troubles sprang to mind as Goldman worked in the organic garden at AJU's Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley last summer. After a bumper crop of tomatoes, he realized he and his students could help fill a need in the community. "I thought, boy, this would be a good time to take a portion of our food and start donating it," he recalled.

In fact, he began to envision dozens of volunteer gardeners across Los Angeles doing the same. A small, 10-by-12-foot organic garden might only produce 20 pounds of food in a season, but a network of bite-sized food-growing operations could collectively help alleviate the strain on local food banks.

"One-hundred of these small gardens could produce more than a ton of food," Goldman said. "These gardens are small, they don't cost a lot, and they're easy to take care of. Anyone with a backyard can do it."

The project is a boon to SOVA Executive Director Joan Mithers, who has seen the number of monthly visits to the agency's three pantries climb steadily since the economy began to sour last summer. In 2002, SOVA provided food to 2,500 clients per month. That number had risen to 5,000 by 2007. A record 6,200 L.A. residents lined up at SOVA locations this September. The agency has struggled to accommodate a 40 percent spike in client visits over the past year alone, between requests for food and financial service referrals, Mithers said.

"We have no indicator that it's going to get better soon," she said, noting that the pantry's donations of surplus food from the USDA have been dwindling in recent years (the agency also receives food from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Westside Food Bank and community food drives). "The common belief is that it will get worse before it gets better. With so many people, it would be great to have more food coming in."

Goldman's crop this summer at the AJU garden was a start. He and his students set aside a 50-by-50-foot portion of the one- acre plot for the Helping Hands Gardens project and ended up donating 200 pounds of food to pantries around Los Angeles, including SOVA and Simi Valley's Care & Share food bank. The organic offerings featured zucchini and butternut squash, sweet corn, roma and beefeater tomatoes, onions and carrots.

Mithers said the project would improve not just the quantity, but also the quality of food at SOVA's pantries.

"This is healthy food," she said. "When people have limited income, they tend to have to buy the kinds of things that fill them up quickly and inexpensively, and those aren't always the healthiest products. We want to provide our clients with healthy food, and you don't get much healthier than fresh, organic produce."

Studies have shown that the act of gardening also carries health benefits -- and a sense of pride -- for the gardeners themselves, according to Goldman.

"It's a win-win-win situation," he said. "The people who are least able to afford organic food will have it provided for them. The students at our institution won't just be learning about social problems; they're taking an active role in the planning process -- getting their hands dirty in the fields -- and that changes them. Then the people in these agencies and schools who have these gardens get this tremendous sense of pride because they put a seed in the ground and helped it grow."

Educators at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles have already seen this phenomenon in the two years since they planted a community garden at their religious school. Students there are no strangers to tikkun olam (healing the world) -- they currently grow flowers to bring to patients at local hospitals alongside Passover herbs and Israeli plants.

"There is a glow in their eyes when they show me the dirt under their fingernails," said Avram Mandell, education director at Leo Baeck. "There's something about nurturing something from start to finish that you can't teach out of a book."

Next spring, the school will dedicate a portion of its garden to Helping Hands. Children in grades K-6 will care for the vegetables, harvest them, and donate them to help feed the hungry.

"We want students to connect to their community through the earth," Mandell said. "This is an amazing opportunity to teach them about contributing to society."

That's how Rabbi Dara Frimmer feels about her young congregants at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. The synagogue, whose unique Green Team encourages recycling and energy conservation, got on board with the Helping Hands project as a way to educate their 400 preschool students about sustainability.

"We want to teach our kids where food comes from," Frimmer said. "We want them not only to have the pretty green plants in their courtyard, but also to teach them about having something they can use and work with and donate."

Because of space restrictions on synagogue grounds, members will install several large planters around the property -- namely in the playground area and in the preschool courtyard -- so kids will interact with the gardens each day.

Until planting season begins in March, Goldman is reaching out to churches, synagogues, Hillels, senior centers and other potential participants to join the effort. Helping Hands Gardens will train AJU students to work with each facility as they set up their garden, which volunteer hosts will tend themselves. Goldman wants to see the project grow to a size where they can donate to food pantries throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

"Every community in the country could have Helping Hands Gardens," he said. "I am a firm believer that any social problem we create, we can solve. We have a lot of people and a lot of kids who need help now, through no fault of their own. We're here and we can help them, so we should."

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