It may take a village to raise a child, but all that's required to help fight hunger in the United States is a handful of seeds, a tiny patch of land (or a corner of a balcony) and a willingness to get your hands dirty. Make no mistake, the problem is urgent. Approximately 49 million people in this country, including nearly 17 million children, experience what's called food insecurity, sometimes having to skip meals or eat less than what's necessary to stay active and healthy. But these determined women have found a way to transform lives, one garden at a time.
By Shelley Levitt
Cofounder and board member, Mother Hubbard's Cupboard
Mission: Provides wholesome food to people in need, along with gardening and nutrition education.
Roots of the idea: In 1998 Laura Marks was a 27-year-old mother of two daughters, ages 1 and 3, earning $12,000 a year. She fed her family with the help of food stamps. "I knew there were other people trying to prepare healthy meals on very limited incomes," Laura says. "I thought if we all pitched in we could help each other." Laura and a friend, Jessica Mott, began picking up items that were left on the shelves of a local food bank—soy milk, Greek yogurt, dried beans, and unusual grains like quinoa—and distributing them from Jessica's garage to low-income women who were pregnant or caring for young children.
As friendships grew, an informal garden club formed. "I was growing okra, squash, and tomatoes in our yard," Laura recalls. "I'd say to the other moms, 'Bring the kids and come hang out.'" The women, some of whom lived in housing projects or even in their cars, accepted the invitation. "If there were vegetables needing to be picked, we'd do that together and everyone would take some home."
A cause blossoms: By 2000 Laura's distribution project became an official nonprofit. With the help of a city grant, the agency started two community gardens two years later and eventually began offering gardening and nutrition workshops. Today Laura's organization runs more than 60 classes annually on everything from how to start seedlings, to composting, baking bread, and raising chickens.
The harvest: In the past nine years the community gardens have grown around 12,000 pounds of organic produce, and hundreds of families have discovered a passion for raising their own food. "After just one class people have skills they can apply right away," says Laura, "like knowing when garlic is ready to pull or how to weed a plot." Several hundred volunteers help over the course of a year (about 150 at any given time), an estimated 80 percent of them clients of the pantry.
Laura's daughters, now 14 and 16, often pitch in with the fundraising (through events like concerts and bike marathons) necessary to buy staples that don't grow in gardens, such as milk, eggs, and grains. "This is our way of life," says Laura. "When you teach people to eat healthy and grow their own food, you help them change their whole lives."
For more info: Mhcfoodpantry.org
To find a community garden near you, visit the American Community Garden Association at communitygarden.org.