Grow-a-Row: Managing Community Gardeners
Vashon has a thriving gardening community that is also committed to food justice and equity for all. You will receive many produce donations throughout the year, but some community members have the resources required to make an even larger commitment, and they want the opportunity. Working with gardeners to ask them to specifically grow produce for the food bank can increase the overall variety that the food bank receives each week.
Vashon Island receives fresh seasonal produce throughout the year from community gardeners and farmers alike. One way to develop a relationship with these produce donors is to request that they grow a specific type of produce for the food bank that is popular among customers. At the Vashon Food Bank, we call that program Grow-a-Row. You can recruit community members to participate in Grow-a-Row by advertising on social media, farming newsletters, posting traditional media at popular community gathering locations such as coffee shops and grocery stores, or calling and emailing previous community members who have donated produce from their own garden to the food bank before.
Direct communication through individual calling or emailing is the most successful form of communication to express your deep desire as an organization to form a relationship with your community garden donors who are committed to increasing food security in their communities. No matter how a community garden heard about the program and reached out to you, make sure throughout the season you are checking up on the progress of their garden and their donations. This will help to secure their participation in the program the following year.
Contact community gardeners you wish to recruit early in the year. Many avid home gardeners start planning out their seasonal gardens as early as February. Make as many direct calls to donors as you can during this time so you are on their radar throughout the planning process. Expect that you will have donors in all sorts of donation categories, from twenty bundles of kale a week to 400lbs of squash at the height of the growing season. Every donation counts.
Community gardeners may not have a lot of excess time to spend on tending the crops they grow for the food bank and their own. Helping them choose produce varieties that are popular for food bank customers and also easier to manage is key. Choosing crop varieties that can be planted at the beginning of the season that will put out multiple opportunities to harvest will be much easier to manage than annuals that will only put out one harvest before needing to be replanted. Examples of multiple harvest plants are squash, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, pole beans, and kale, plus prolific herbs such as mint–just to name a few. Establish expectations for the gardens.
Keep track of the weekly community gardens’ produce donations in an Excel spreadsheet. You will need to track the date of the donation, the individual donors’ contact information, produce variety, poundage, and if they want an in-kind donation receipt. Check-in weekly with each donor to follow up on what you can be expected next week. Are they bundling or bagging the produce before it is donated to the food bank? Do they have their own containers? Can they deliver produce directly to the food bank or do you need to coordinate with a volunteer to pick it up? Produce donations should be done one to two days before weekly grocery distribution. Some hardy plants such as winter squash can be donated a week before distribution without concerns of spoilage.
It is critically important to give gratitude when receiving generosity. Your community garden donors are giving your organization their time and in-kind donations that have a real monetary value. Allow your food bank customers an opportunity to also thank your donors by filling out thank you cards telling donors how access to fresh fruits and vegetables makes a difference in their lives. Hand-written notes are preferred, but create as many opportunities to recognize these donors as possible through social media, food bank newsletters, and thank-you posters around town. With all donors, they believe that participating in their local food system will make a difference in promoting food security for themselves and their neighbors. By showing them that their contributions do indeed make a difference, they will be more likely to participate in the program the following year and even recruit some of their friends who are also avid gardeners to participate the following year. Word of mouth is still the best form of recruitment for any program.