One night when he was in Washington on business, Jeff Lowenfels was approached by a homeless man while strolling down a desolate street.
"I need money to eat," the man pleaded. Mr. Lowenfels hesitated. It was his policy never to give panhandlers money.
He ignored the man and walked on. On the plane ride home to Alaska, thoughts of the hungry in Anchorage raced through his mind.
As soon as his plane touched down, Lowenfels decided to wage a personal war against hunger. In his gardening column in a local newspaper, he mapped out a strategy: He asked readers to plant an extra row of fruits and vegetables in their gardens and deliver the harvest to a local soup kitchen.
"I ran the program for several years with moderate success," he says. "Then, when the Garden Writers of America Association came to Anchorage for its annual convention in 1994 - I happened to be president at the time - I pitched the idea."
Writers sowing a good idea
GWAA adopted the program on the spot, naming it "Plant A Row for the Hungry." Today, folks in more than 30 cities throughout the United States and Canada are participating in Plant A Row. And it's flourishing like cherry tomatoes in August.
The program aims to encourage gardeners everywhere to grow a little extra and donate the produce to local agencies that serve food to those in need.
"Anyone who has grown zucchini or tomatoes can testify to the abundance of their harvest," Lowenfels says. "Imagine the amount of food that could be produced if gardeners all over the country purposely planted more than they needed."
Plant A Row's success has been a testament to the grass-roots efforts of garden writers like Lowenfels, who have been relentless in publicizing the program. Many of those involved with Plant A Row say that the program is desperately needed because government efforts to restructure the welfare system are leaving an increasing number of people without enough food.
This year, the goal is to deliver 1 million pounds of fresh produce to the nation's food-distribution agencies by 2000.
"Plant A Row is a people-helping-people campaign," says Jaqui Heriteau, national director for the project. "We really treasure everyone who wants to help."
Ms. Heriteau emphasizes that the program can extend beyond home gardens. "Organizations like churches and schools can - and have - grown and donated mounds of produce."
Heriteau says that the first thing people ask is: How do gardeners who participate get produce into the right hands?
"Plant A Row committees make arrangements for food to be dropped off at pick-up points to make it easier for gardeners," she says.
In cities where the program has been organized, a committee first locates one or preferably several agencies in the area that need and can handle garden produce. (GWAA has a toll-free number that gardeners can call to find the locations of food banks, soup kitchens, and other agencies that accept fresh produce; see box, right.)
"Food banks and soup kitchens usually greet fresh produce [from Plant A Row gardens] with open arms," says Michelle Halvorsen, who works for Second Harvest food bank in Milwaukee, Wis.
"Food banks and shelters don't see much fresh produce - much of what they serve comes from cans," she says
Ms. Halvorsen says many home gardeners believe it hardly seems worth their effort for one bushel of produce. "That's simply not true," she says. "They all add up."
No government funds needed
Joan Jackson, garden columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, pioneered the Plant A Row program two years ago within her California community. She encouraged local gardeners to sign a pledge to grow and donate fresh produce.
The response was overwhelming. Within the first year of her campaign, readers had donated 34,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables to area hunger-relief agencies.
Ms. Jackson says that Plant A Row works so well because it's "carried out in a way that requires no governmental funds and no big cuts or donations from businesses or organizations."
*John Christian Hoyle is on the Monitor staff.
How you can participate
1. Plant an extra row in your garden, no matter its size.
2. Plant vegetables and fruits that travel and keep well: broccoli, cabbage, carrots, peas, green beans, tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, summer squash (including zucchini), winter squash, onions, beets, apples, and pears. Herbs are also welcome.
3. Harvest and thoroughly clean the produce.
4. Contact your local food bank, soup kitchen, church, social agency, or Salvation Army to donate the fresh produce.
Or, call FoodChain at 800-845-3080 or Second Harvest at 800-771-2302 to locate donation agencies.
For more information about Plant A Row, call 1-877-GWAA-PAR or visit the Web site www.gwaa.org