3 Women Whose Gardens Changed Lives

These women are working to help the 49 million people in this country who experience food insecurity—skipping meals or eating less than needed.

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Laura Marks, 40


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.

Cofounder and board member, Mother Hubbard's Cupboard
Bloomington, Indiana

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.

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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: Villageharvest.org

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

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Holly Hirschberg, 38


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.