Lynn Michael has a problem. The garden where she volunteers, a small plot called Love and Fishes Bountiful Garden at Haywood Street Congregation, grows about 300 pounds of food each season for the Downtown Welcome Table, yet there still isn’t enough food for those who come in search of emergency food assistance.
“A lot of the gardens that maybe could give us donations may think we feed such a small amount of people that their donations won’t be helpful, and so they take it somewhere else,” Michael says. “But we’re not just feeding people lunch — we want to give them something nutritional to take home, and we aren’t always able to.”
Meanwhile, Michael says, other gardens growing food to combat food insecurity are facing the opposite problem: There is an abundance of some crops, which may end up in a compost pile or rotting on the stock.
With a new growing season just around the bend, community gardens in Western North Carolina are preparing to face their annual challenge: making sure no one goes hungry and no food goes to waste. But in a region like WNC, where horticulture grows abundantly and so many groups and individuals in so many places are working to combat food insecurity, how can the growers network together to make sure their food gets to where it is needed?
“We all share the same frustration because we are all working for a common goal, and we all hate seeing food go to waste,” says Ali Casparian, who runs a free produce market called Bounty & Soul in Black Mountain.
“What happens is so much of your focus goes to just your one area,” Casparian says. “I’ve spent the last year and a half just getting to know the growers and anyone who can help me in Black Mountain. We certainly could benefit from working with others in Asheville or beyond, but there is just so much going on, it gets overwhelming.”
Of course, this isn’t to say there isn’t cooperation happening between gardens — though much of that networking has long been reliant on word of mouth, says Buncombe County Master Gardener Mary Hugenschmidt.
“Gardeners talk — tips, techniques, this variety over that variety,” Hugenschmidt says. “There’s a lot of sharing that goes on in the individual gardens, and some of that spreads out as those gardeners meet and talk to other gardeners.”
Hugenschmidt says the Buncombe County Master Gardeners, a trained volunteer corps from the NC Cooperative Extension, often spread word through the 16 sites where their members consult or work with other volunteers. When one garden has too many plant starts, seeds or tools, a master gardener may know of another garden in need and can facilitate the exchange.
Master gardeners may also come together to work in one garden if it is experiencing a dire need. And their educational, site-based lectures and talks encourage volunteers to visit between gardens. But when it comes to the task of distributing produce, it may remain up to the individual gardens to work among themselves — a task that can be quite daunting.
“I think something that Western North Carolina is really lacking is a good network between the gardens,” says Molly Peeples, a master gardener who works with the Loves and Fishes garden. “There is so much gardening knowledge, but I don’t feel there is a centralized network where all those thoughts can be connected, though I think it would be of great benefit.”
Another problem, Peeples says, is educating volunteers who work in the kitchens at food pantries on how to prepare the food the gardens grow.
“The idea is to get fresh food to the food banks, but some things that are easy to grow, like chard, are just not something a lot of people want to eat,” Peeples says. “For many people, they’ve never developed a pallet for a lot of these foods, often because it’s financially difficult to buy these things when you go to grocery store.”
“Last season at Haywood Street, we harvested six grocery bags full of kale,” Peeples continues. “Our kitchen couldn’t use it, so we took it to another mission, and it ended up getting thrown away because they didn’t know what to do with it. So it takes creative problem-solving in each individual community, because it’s about distributing the food, but it’s also about knowing what foods are appealing to the specific people you are working with.”
At Black Mountain’s Bounty & Soul Market, volunteers strive to create an environment that is much about wellness as it is about food. Founder and volunteer Ali Casparian incorporates yoga and qi gong lessons, cooking demonstrations and informational pamphlets into the free produce market. (Carrie Eidson/ Mountain Xpress)
As daunting as the task of networking community gardens may be, efforts are being made. There are garden clubs and gardening conferences such as those hosted by Organic Growers School in Asheville or the statewide Come to the Table project which holds regional conferences every other year, including a 2013 conference in Jackson County.
There is also a grassroots network called Gardens that Give of WNC, which reaches across several counties in the region. The network is free to join for any garden or individual that grows, or plans to grow, food for donation. It began three years ago in Buncombe County when several community gardens “came together to inspire themselves and inspire their communities,” says Susan Sides, who is also the executive director of The Lord’s Acre in Fairview.
“We just kept inviting more and more people to work with us, and it grew really quickly,” says Sides. “When we met other people and other gardeners, we would just say ‘Hey, you should join us!’”
Gardens that Give now connects gardens in Asheville, Black Mountain, Swannanoa, Sylva, Cullowhee, Spruce Pine and Yancey County. The organization holds inter-garden tours where members can visit each other’s spaces and learn from each other, in addition to maintaining an active social media network.
“We discussed where we wanted this thing to go, and we decided that just focusing on Asheville and Buncombe County would be too small and not very impactful,” Sides says. “Even if it would be difficult to work across these distances, we felt it was important. So we take field trips, we travel and meet each other.”
Gardens that Give now meets as a group three to four times a year, Sides says, and plans to expand into new activities this year — including public garden tours. Future plans include in-garden workshops, working with Come to the Table, publishing informational pamphlets and continuing to expand and strengthen their network.
“I know we’re missing a hundred gardens,” Sides says. “The more people we have to share ideas with the stronger we get. It’s our dream to one day take this national so we can talk to other gardens all over the country.”
Meanwhile, as gardens in WNC gear up for the new season, gardeners are learning from the experiences of last year and trying out new ideas. At Loves and Fishes, a member of Gardens that Give, Michael says this year the garden will focus on growing foods that can be gleaned, or picked directly from the plant, such as cherry tomatoes, small cucumbers and lettuces. The hope is to encourage those in need to come directly to the garden — a direct approach to reducing food waste. There will also be an increased focus on education to help clients and volunteers understand the full value of the food.
“People are going to come and take this food, so we want them to know the proper way to do it,” Michael says. “We want them to understand what this or that is and how to cook it, or what’s in season and will give them the highest nutritional value.
“We’re exploring a lot of different possibilities about how do we grow this, how do we make this bigger, how do we support more people,” she continues. “We’re always kind of flying by the seat of our pants. But all gardens face the same issues, so we’re talking and helping each other to figure it out.”