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 executive director, The Dinner Garden
San Antonio, Texas
Mission: Gives out free fruit and vegetable seeds.
Roots of the idea: Holly and her husband, Sean, first started growing their own vegetables as a form of therapy for the couple's two children, Sam, now 18, and Jacqui, 17. The Hirshbergs adopted the biological siblings, who were 9 and 10 and had serious behavior problems, in 2002. "We couldn't trust the kids with pets at first," says Holly, "so we gave them plants they could nurture, hoping that along the way they'd learn compassion and responsibility."
It worked for the children—and also yielded bumper crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, squash, watermelon, and herbs.
A cause blossoms: As the recession deepened in the summer of 2008, Holly heard news reports that demand at the local food bank was up by about 60 percent while donations were way down. And, she learned, with gas prices soaring, even when there were enough supplies people couldn't afford the drive to pick them up.
"I knew there had to be another, better way to feed people," Holly says. One day, looking at the abundance in her backyard, the answer came to her. "If I give people seeds, they could grow their own produce at home," she thought, "and they'd never again have to worry about running out." Holly discovered that if she bought in bulk, it would take just $5 worth of seeds to feed a family of seven fresh produce for a year. What's more, she found, it takes only 4 square feet of dirt to grow a 12-month supply of fruits and vegetables for one adult. "I concluded that the solution to a family's hunger," says Holly, "could be in their backyard."
The harvest: The Hirshbergs began distributing seeds in January 2009, through social agencies and businesses, to anyone who wanted them. Since then the organization has helped over 50,000 individuals, families, and community gardens in all 50 states, with volunteers working alongside the Hirshberg family.
The requirement to receive seeds is simple: "All we ask," says Holly, "is that if you grow something you're not going to eat, you give it to someone who will."
For more info: Dinnergarden.org
Visit worldfoodgarden.org for a "Plant Guide," which has the best planting dates for your area. Find tips on container gardening at lifeonthebalcony.com.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.