Harvest is in full swing and, chances are, local gardeners and farmers are up to their ears in cucumbers, zucchini and sweet corn. At the same time, one in nine North Dakotans seeks emergency food assistance.
In an effort to eliminate waste and provide fresh produce to those who are less fortunate, the Hunger Free North Dakota Garden Project was created in 2010. To date, more than 2.5 million pounds of food has been distributed to homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens across the state through the program.
“Zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, onions, peppers … everybody seems to have a little something extra,” said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “Instead of this going to waste, why not drop it off at the soup kitchen?”
The program encourages farmers and gardeners to plant an extra acre or row of produce in the spring to donate in the fall, but anyone — no matter the size of the garden — can participate. Whether able to donate 3 pounds or 50, you're making a difference, Goehring said.
“It’s really important that people just do it,” he added.
Through the program, fresh produce is put into the hands of the homeless, low- and fixed-income individuals and families, those with disabilities and the elderly.
“We had no idea it would take off like it did,” Goehring said. “We’re going to continue on with it, as it’s been well received, and more and more people are becoming aware.
“We didn’t do this to be self-serving, but to help those in need … families, individuals who are disabled and stuck at home and the elderly, who, perhaps, spent years gardening but are no longer able to be outside,” Goehring said. “At least we can get fresh produce to them without costs being incurred.”
The produce is weighed and distributed in communities with the help of the Great Plains Food Bank and local agencies.
Mandan's AID Inc. is one such agency. Between July and October 2017, the nonprofit organization collected and distributed 1,484 pounds of fresh produce. So far this year, 723 pounds of zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, rhubarb, tomatoes and lettuce have been donated.
“We've had something as massive as a trailer pull up behind our agency here, full to the brim of corn,” said Patti Regan, executive director of AID Inc. “We make sure we get it passed out immediately. We put it on a scale, we weigh it and put it out front on our free rack and individuals can just come take what they want.”
The fresh produce is also distributed through the agency's food pantry. Local soup kitchens, churches, schools and daycares receive AID's excess, to ensure nothing goes to waste.
“We'd really have a bit of a hard time telling you how many people are served by this. The formula we use is one pound, one person. That would mean, since July, 723 people have received some fresh produce. And I can tell you, we haven't thrown even one away.”
Regan said the community's generosity enables AID to help serve others.
“We have always been the recipient of generosity from people,” she said. “It's amazing how people want to share. They don't want things to go to waste.”
This fall, a Little Free Pantry — Mandan’s first, according to Regan — will be located in front of AID, 314 W. Main St. The pantry will be stocked with canned goods, such as soup, beans, fruits and vegetables, and those in need will be able to access it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“If you're on foot, passing through and are hungry, there's the pantry and take what you need,” Regan said.
In the meantime, and through October, people wishing to donate fresh produce to be distributed by AID may do so during the organization’s hours of operation: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.