By Thompson Teagle (Carolina Farm Stewardship Association 2017/2018 Policy Intern) & Jared Cates (Community Food Strategies team member and Community Mobilizer at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association)
“The impact has been real,” says Kate Young member of End Hunger Durham and the Durham Farm and Food Network (DFFN), “Many times ‘fresh food’ at pantries are items from large box stores and retailers that are on their way out – meaning they are not fresh at all. The donations through the ‘Plant a Row’ initiative are fresh out of a local garden grown specifically for you. It’s a big difference. ”
While Durham, NC is often referred as the foodie capital of the South, thousands of residents do not have equitable access to most of the delicious and high-quality food in the area. According to research done by UNC’s School of Government in 2015, around 20% of children in Durham County lived in food insecure homes.1 To address this issue, members of DFFN used their connections with farmers, gardeners, and food security advocates to explore creating a Plant-a-Row Initiative to grow and donate produce to community members.
Since 1995, over 20 million pounds of produce providing over 80 million meals have been donated across the country through the Garden Writers Association’s “Plant a Row’ program. All of this has been achieved without government subsidy or bureaucratic red tape – just people helping people. Local ‘Plant a Row’ initiatives focus on connecting home, urban, and community gardeners with local food pantries. The basic idea is that farmers and gardeners plant a row of crops specifically to be donated to a local pantry. When the food is ready to be harvested, the grower collects it and brings it to the pantry. It’s simple, yet powerful.
In 2011, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle started a ‘Plant a Row’ program in Raleigh with drop sites for community grown produce. Durham wanted to create a different model. DFFN is an all-volunteer grassroots coalition that ultimately aims to make Durham a healthier place that supports farms, community gardens, environmentally responsible initiatives, and accessible food for all. Similar to the structure of other food councils, or food policy councils, in North Carolina, DFFN is comprised of a leadership team – their Coordinating Council – and working groups – their Action Circles. The Action Circles develop and implement strategies related to their issue areas – Food Justice & Security (also known as End Hunger Durham), Farming & Natural Resources, Health, and Economy.
In recognizing that DFFN did not have the capacity to be the home for such programmatic work, the Farming & Natural Resources Action Circle (FNR Action Circle) determined they would not create ‘another program’ with Plant-a-Row and instead, the initiative could be self-sustaining. Rather than establishing drop off points for redistribution that would require coordination, they decided to forge relationships directly between gardeners and food pantries. This would connect pantries directly with fresh produce and develop networks across the community.
To do this, the FNR Action Circle had to rely on and build relationships. For most priorities, Action Circles operate individually. However, they saw an opportunity to work across the food council for greater impact. By fusing the farmer and gardener connections within the FNR Action Circle with the food pantry connections of End Hunger Durham. DFFN was able to pool resources and make a plan that improved access to fresh local food.
Prior to this idea of developing a local “Plant a Row” initiative, End Hunger Durham conducted an in-depth inventory of food pantries across Durham. This work was part of DFFN’s efforts to foster the development of a coalition of food pantries, to make pantry information more accessible to the community, and to gauge pantry capacity for fresh food distribution. This survey required countless phone calls. Through this inventory process, the FNR Action Circle knew that End Hunger Durham had direct relationships with pantries, so they reached out to them with the ‘Plant a Row’ idea. End Hunger Durham saw this project as directly linking with their working group goals and were immediately excited to support it.
Through bridging and partnership, the two Action Circles created a map overlaying the food pantries and gardens across the Durham community who were interested in participating. With visual representation, DFFN was able to easily identify which gardeners and farmers could best serve which food pantries.
Many phone calls and meetings culminated in a grower-pantry potluck to kick off the ‘Plant a Row’ initiative in the spring of 2017. The event established direct connections between growers and nearby food pantries, and a list was distributed to all of the growers with direct contact information for each participating pantry. Kate Young and Nicole Connelly, a member of both the FNR Action Circle and the Coordinating Council, both agreed to take shared responsibility to update the database as needed and handle any new inquiries. The FNR Action Circle also agreed to create a system for growers to track the amounts of produce donated to pantries.
“Personal contact information for the participating pantries is key,” says Young, “There really needs to be someone at the pantry who is willing to give their phone number and email, and to meet grower donors. That level of commitment is critical to the network being functional.”
The initiative was a huge success in its first year. Partner growers such as West Point on the Eno, Holy Infant Church, Duke University Campus Farm, Inter Faith Food Shuttle, and Herndon Hills Farm grew and distributed over 1,100 pounds of produce to pantries such as Urban Ministries, Parkwood Elementary Pantry, and many others. DFFN celebrated everyone’s hard work with another community dinner in the fall to thank all of the partners and to celebrate their successes. Those growers now have direct relationships with the food pantries and will continue to donate produce to community members in need for years to come.
“Pantry customers are very appreciative of this food and very eager to learn how to cook it,” says Young. End Hunger Durham has also connected the pantries with resources to host cooking classes and demos as a way to help pantry customers understand how to prepare fresh foods.
DFFN hosted another grower-pantry potluck in the spring of 2018 to continue matchmaking and to kick off the next growing season. They once again reached out to pantries expressing interest, community gardeners and farmers. They extended invitations to backyard gardeners through the City of Durham neighborhood listservs. They also worked with the Duke Campus Farm to give away free plant starts as a promotion for the dinner. Everyone was thrilled to have new growers and new pantries at the table.
Young was excited to see new faces at the event. “We know it’s working when I get less calls from growers about how to connect, and I get more calls that are updates on pounds of food donated to each pantry,” she says, “It’s great to see the initiative really taking root in the community.”
The initiative taken by the FNR Action Circle to work across DFFN has clearly paid off. While Action Circles and working groups within food councils may sometimes feel isolated in working within their own subgroups, it is crucial to remember the spirit of food councils themselves. Food councils exist to create cross-sector approaches to food systems issues by networking and developing relationships across fields of interest. The ‘Plant a Row’ initiative clearly bridges the areas of community and home gardens, commercial crop production and emergency food access. DFFN was able to bridge their work across their groups to leverage all of their resources, knowledge and relationships to explore its potential.
Action Circles members will continue to update the database and map, and to host semiannual grower-pantry potlucks. They also plan on hosting garden days throughout the year to give Durham residents the opportunity to get their hands dirty and help grow food for the community. There are even efforts underway to develop a smartphone app that will directly connect Durham residents with emergency food resources, and eventually food producers with food pantries. While the ‘Plant a Row’ initiative still requires light coordination and support, it has fostered a network of food growers and food pantries who are independently working to create more fresh food options for those most in need in the Durham community.
“It is becoming more and more self-sustaining,” Young says, “After our initial efforts, fresh local produce will continue to flow from gardens and farms directly to our most vulnerable community members with minimum support and coordination.”