Surveying her backyard in Moscow, Idaho, Amy Grey feels a rush of satisfaction. Raspberries and strawberries are ready for picking, pole beans and plump tomatoes ripen on trellises, and there's row after row of carrots, squash, spinach, pumpkins, and more. Her plantings yield more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce annually—not bad for someone who was all thumbs, none of them green, when she started gardening a few years ago. "I grew up playing in the alleys of Chicago and pretty much have always lived in cities," she says. "Until I moved to Idaho, I'd never grown anything in my life."
These days Amy, a 41-year-old freelance graphic designer, is reaping record crops for Backyard Harvest, the innovative program she founded in 2006 to feed the hungry. Every May to October, Amy and other hardworking volunteers plant, pick, and deliver some 20,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to food banks in Moscow and nearby Lewiston, as well as in Washington State. The project has been so successful that two branches recently sprouted in California. "We've found a way to help others—and it's right outside our doors," she says. "With all our baskets and bushels of homegrown produce we're contributing to the health and well-being of thousands of people by tapping into a spirit of self-reliance and living off the land. And we're creating a more tightly knit community in the bargain."
An Unexpected Community Garden
As Amy likes to tell it, Backyard Harvest started serendipitously. She and her husband, Mark, moved to Moscow from Cincinnati in 1998 when he was offered a position to teach archaeology at the University of Idaho. After sons Tom and Sam were born, the family bought a 1948 clapboard house on three-quarters of an acre with views of the fertile, rolling hills known as the Palouse. "During our first spring there in 2005, I decided that having a garden would be fun for all of us," Amy recalls. "But I was a total novice, so I let the boys plant the whole packet of seeds, and we ended up with 200 heads of lettuce. We had friends, but we didn't have that many friends."
She contacted the Moscow Food Bank and asked if they'd accept fresh produce. "They said yes, and it turned out people really wanted it, because the lettuce was gone in a flash," says Amy. "I remember thinking how ironic it was that Idaho is one of the greatest agricultural states in the nation, but people had been leaving the food bank without a single apple or bunch of carrots. It got me thinking that there must be a way to get wholesome food onto people's tables."
Amy began planting as much as her backyard could grow and enlisted neighbors to do the same, telling them she'd cart the bounty herself to the food bank. Some people had fruit trees, so Amy soon added apples, pears, apricots, plums, and cherries to the haul. She also did a little research and learned that Moscow and Lewiston have a high percentage of seniors on limited incomes, and that 14 percent of area households face some degree of food insecurity, a number that exceeds the national average. "I wanted not only to turn this project into a nonprofit but also to set up a corps of 'garden mentors' to teach people how to grow food and can it themselves," Amy says. "I remember being fascinated as a child when my mom told me stories about my great-grandmother making preserves. This charity was in me all along."
Finding Community Partners
She turned to Tom Lamar, founder and executive director of the Palouse Clearwater-Environmental Institute (PCEI), which supports local, organic farming, for help filling out applications and writing grant proposals. Using her graphic design skills, Amy set up a Web site so she could launch a donation drive. "PCEI had generously agreed to be our fiscal sponsor, which meant that until Backyard Harvest was legally established, any funds I raised would be donated to the institute, and it deposited the money in an account for us," she explains.
Once Backyard Harvest was up and running last year, Amy began offering free gardening kits to new members who contributed $25 or more. "We have about $14,000 in the bank," says Amy. "It may not sound like much, but our expenses are low. I'm still a volunteer, as are all our gardeners, who use their own cars and pay for their own gas. We have just two paid staffers, including one we call the Gleaning Coordinator, who takes all the requests for pickups and organizes who goes where."
Amy still gets a helping hand from her family. When a call comes in from someone with trees bursting with cherries or a patch full of pumpkins, "we all pile in the car," she says. "Tom and Sam, who are now 9 and 6, love seeing new places and meeting new people. Mark and I might sit and have coffee with an elderly couple before we pick the peaches in their backyard and the boys will play with their kittens. They'll feed apples to the horses on a farm near an orchard that gave us several bushels. Or we'll just sit right down and eat some of whatever we've picked. I have a picture of Sam totally covered in cherry juice and looking really happy!"
The kids still tend their own garden, a popular field trip destination for their teachers and classmates. "The students might harvest berries, plant cucumbers, prepare boxes for the food banks, or do crafts, like carving dried gourds into bird houses," says Amy. "They also love making worm bins by putting shredded paper into wooden crates. We feed them scraps and then use their waste as fertilizer—a great firsthand lesson in ecology. But just seeing plants grow can be a real learning experience. One little boy was amazed to find out that peas come from a pod and not a frozen dinner!"
Spreading the Bounty
With recent requests from Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for information on starting local chapters of Backyard Harvest, Amy hopes that communities from coast to coast will follow suit. The group has also partnered with the city of Moscow to allow families to use food stamps at the area farmers' market to purchase fresh produce. "When times are tough—and they certainly are right now—there's no easier way to give people nutritious meals and let them know someone cares," she says. "There's a special look in people's eyes when they receive food from others who've planted and harvested it with their own hands. I was dropping off produce at a food bank once when a woman came up to me and said, 'This makes me feel loved.' I told her it goes both ways. And believe me, I get more than I give."
The blessings extend to her whole family. "Mark and I were a couple of city kids with no idea what to expect when we got here," she says. "Now we feel we belong. In fact, we raved about Idaho and the Northwest so much that when my parents retired last year, they moved from Chicago to Spokane, Washington. They help out with the harvest when they visit, right alongside their grandsons. We've all become friends with many of our neighbors in need who we'd never have met otherwise. They'll be in our hearts forever."
Calling All Cooks
Know how to make a delicious zucchini casserole that even the kids love? Have advice on preparing rutabaga or storing peas? Backyard Harvest is putting together tips and recipe cards to accompany produce donations. Go to backyardharvest.org to e-mail your ideas—or to make a contribution online. You can also send a check to Backyard Harvest, P.O. Box 9783, Moscow, Idaho 83843.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.