In the spring, so many gardeners get excited about the prospect of planting a vegetable garden. But right about now, many of them are passing out veggies faster than they can pick them – neighbors, relatives, friends, and friends of friends. Sometimes the summer veggie harvest yields far more than one family can possibly eat at a time.
It happens to me every year, and when I run out of recipients, I hate to see it go to waste.
Now, it doesn’t have to.
Whenever we have a big party at our house, we get boxes from the Capital Area Food Bank and ask guests to donate cans of food. Most people who donate to the food bank through donation drives give non-perishable items.
But I never knew that the food bank also welcomes donations of fresh produce until I stumbled upon a website called Ample Harvest.
This organization created a database to enable home gardeners to easily find local food banks and pantries eager to receive their freshly-picked fruits and vegetables. And it allows food banks and pantries to register and provide information to gardeners. There are more than 30,000 food pantries in the United States. There are currently 3,956 food banks and pantries registered in the database.
When I searched the database for Austin, I learned that the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin is one of those registered with Ample Harvest. And I was surprised to learn that it provides as much fresh produce as it can to all the local food pantries, soup kitchens and other non-profits it serves.
Last year, the food bank distributed more than 25 million pounds of food to feed the hungry in the Austin area.
Of that, approximately 22 percent consisted of fresh produce and dairy products. Most of that comes from commercial food rescue operations. Retailers like HEB, Sams, and Walmart donate perishable food that is close to, but not at, its sell-by date. The food bank carefully inspects the food for quality and freshness and makes it available to its recipients.
And while the scale of individual donations certainly can’t match that, the food bank happily takes fresh produce from local gardeners who have an overabundance of fruits and vegetables in their gardens at the height of the growing season. On average, they receive approximately 500 pounds of fresh produce a month from local gardeners. Because many of the non-profits that the food bank serves are small providers, a bag of tomatoes could easily be the base for the day’s soup in a soup kitchen. Your harvest doesn’t have to feed thousands, but combined with other donations, it all adds up.
So, I decided to make a donation of fresh vegetables from our garden. My daughter and I picked our overabundant veggies, washed them, and boxed them up and drove to the food bank.
We were met by eager staffers who happily showed us around the facility. We went with them to weigh the produce and were then taken to the enormous cooler that houses all their perishable items. Our box of greens went right up on a big shelf with lots of other small and large quantities of fruits and vegetables.
Then they showed us their teaching garden, where volunteers and employees plant a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. They use the teaching garden with groups – particularly school children – to show them how food grows before it reaches the store, to educate them about the importance of fresh foods, and to emphasize the need for a balanced diet. The food bank has a dietician on staff and works with nutritionists – going into classrooms to help teach those lessons to children.
Next year, the food bank will expand on these programs as they break ground on a new building, significantly larger than their current facility.
According to John Turner, Senior Director of Marketing and Branding for the food bank, “One of the great features of the new building is that it will drastically increase the size of the cooler and freezer to four or five times the size of our current ones. This will enable us to provide much more fresh food to the community through our programs and other providers.”
While the food bank receives high volumes of donations around the winter holidays, the bank serves hungry people and families year-round, not just during the holidays. In the summer, they have additional needs as they help support summer food programs for children who get breakfast or lunch assistance in their schools throughout the school year – assistance that isn’t available when school lets out.
So, if you are looking for some way to make use of your overabundance of tomatoes or cucumbers, consider sharing your harvest with the Capital Area Food Bank. You don’t need great volumes of produce to make a contribution. They are happy to take what you can give them. Tell your gardening friends and neighbors; take your kids with you. It’s a great way to share your love of gardening and make a difference in someone else’s life.
The Capital Area Food Bank at 8201 South Congress is open weekdays from 8-5 and Saturdays from 9-4.