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3 Women Whose Gardens Changed Lives

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

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Joni Ohta Diserens
Victoria Yee
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Joni Ohta Diserens, 46

Founder and executive director, Village Harvest
San Jose, California

Mission: Distributes unwanted fruit from backyard trees to food agencies.

Roots of the idea: "A community service project run amok" is how Joni Ohta Diserens describes the beginnings of Village Harvest in the spring of 2001. For years she had been leading tween and teen girls from 4-H groups on field trips through her neighborhood, teaching them how to find fruit that would otherwise go to waste, then preserve it. "I had grown up as a 4-H kid myself in Hawaii," she says, "and to me it was second nature that when there's an overabundance of fruit you process it to use in the winter."

A cause blossoms: "As word spread that a group of teens were interested in picking unwanted fruit," Joni says, "my phone rang nonstop with calls from home owners who wanted us to come take away their extras." Many were elderly or physically limited and, unable to pick the fruit themselves, had watched bushels fall and rot every season. "We couldn't turn it all into jam so I contacted a local food bank and offered to give them most of what we had," Joni says. "They weren't sure their clients would want fruit from individuals' homes, but they were willing to give it a try."

Within days 22 volunteers had gathered 1,200 pounds of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines from the backyards of just nine homes. "The fruit was so fresh, it just flew off the pantry shelves," says Joni. "We knew we were onto something good!"

The harvest: Since 2002 the nonprofit has delivered over 2.2 million servings of fruit to the hungry. In 2009, 173,000 pounds of fruit was harvested from the yards of 500 homes. Today there are 2,000 homes in their database and more than 900 volunteers, who range in age from 7 to 97. Even with all of the eager recipients, there is fruit left over each season, which volunteers make into thousands of jars of jam, jelly, and marmalade. Sales of these supplement funds from grants and private donations.

For Joni and her husband, Craig, the organization's secretary, treasurer, and IT adviser, what's especially gratifying is the way Village Harvest changes the lives of families. "I've had people rush over to me to say thanks, give me hugs, and even sing 'God Bless America,'" Joni says. "One woman told me that the oranges were keeping her family off welfare. Her kids were a lot healthier, which meant she didn't have to take days off work to stay home when one of them was sick, so she was finally able to hold on to a job."

For more info:

The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers specifics about canning, freezing, and storing fruits and vegetables. Visit

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