Home gardeners can feed the hungry on a big scale, foster community on an intimate level

8 min. read
Paul Heitzenrater holds carrots from the garden in his Montclair backyard, Oct. 12, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Paul Heitzenrater calls the Montclair house he shares with his husband “teeny, tiny.” The dahlias almost seem to tower over it.

But the couple’s yard and hearts are huge. Every season for years now, Heitzenrater and John Farnam have been donating hundreds of pounds of the food they grow to the hungry.

They do eat some of their own produce. But, Heitzenrater said, “it’s only the two of us. And John’s not a big vegetable guy.”

Their output of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, corn, beets, broccoli, cabbages, peaches, plums, multicolored carrots and more might be beyond many of us. But theirs is an example of what home gardeners can do in a city where families are struggling even as food is wasted.

Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit that works to increase access to nutritious food, is in contact with pantries that serve the needy across the state.

“We know from a client survey that was done by our Food Pantry Network that more availability of fresh produce at local food banks and pantries was a top priority of the customers they serve,” said Kate Kasper, Hunger Free Colorado’s director of public policy. “Home gardeners could donate their garden supply to local pantries, congregations” and other organizations.

You can learn about food banks and pantries in the Denver metro area here. Reach out before you drop off your donation to ensure the facility is equipped to accept and check on opening times.

It all started with a kitchen remodel.

Heitzenrater, a rehabilitation therapist and pool coordinator at National Jewish Health, and Farnam, community investment liaison at the Morgridge Family Foundation and recently named Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow, weren’t cooking much a summer a half dozen years ago because they were remodeling their kitchen. They searched for something useful to do with the produce from what was then a small garden just outside that kitchen’s window. They heard that parents at the elementary school down the street were collecting food to send home in the backpacks of students who ate free or reduced-price meals at school and might not have enough to eat on weekends.

“I didn’t even know that there were hungry kids,” Heitzenrater said. “Especially in our area.”

Paul Heitzenrater in the garden in his Montclair backyard, Oct. 12, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Nearly eight of 10 students at Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, the public school a few blocks from Heitzenrater and Farnam, qualify for free or reduced lunch. That’s higher than the district average of nearly 70 percent. According to city estimates, nearly one in six households and one in five children in Denver experience hunger or food insecurity. The latter means financial or other barriers keep those families from getting enough food at times.

“This is not right. How can kids not eat?” Heitzenrater remembered thinking.

He and Farnam began donating to the Montclair backpack program. Then they started taking produce to Metro Caring, which runs a free grocery “store” near Saint Joseph Hospital. Visitors to Metro Caring can also get job training, help paying the light bill, advice on signing up for food stamps and dealing with an eviction notice, and more.

Giving to a food pantry that fights poverty.

Metro Caring CEO Teva Sienicki said her 44-year-old nonprofit built its sun-filled facility a few years ago in part to be able to handle fresh produce, which it gets from grocery stores and the Food Bank of the Rockies as well as home gardeners.

"To be able to share from your place of abundance ... is a blessing for everybody involved," Sienicki  said. "And, moreover, come get involved. Come garden with us. Come meet your neighbors."

Sienicki is leading efforts at Metro Caring to not only feed the hungry but address such issues as low wages, how to better care for those who are unable to work, and a system that creates food that is wasted.

"These are big things," she acknowledged. "How do we bite off our share?"

One step toward an answer was taken this year when Metro Caring opened up the gardens it had used to grow food for its pantry. Now they are community gardens where people who receive food from the organization can plant and harvest alongside volunteers, staff and neighbors.

"That creates that connection that needs to be at the root of any solution," she said, saying conversations in the garden can encourage neighbors to care for one another, and perhaps then pursue government policies that help one another.

Metro Caring also has opened up kitchens where instructors had once held nutrition classes. Now volunteers, including people who get food aid at Metro Caring, are in charge of classes in international cuisines. Some of those volunteers are being encouraged to take leadership positions within the organization, bringing ideas from their experiences.

Vera Cook, a vivacious 57-year-old who comes into Metro Caring once a month for food, doesn't garden. Instead, she volunteers in the grocery store four days a week, helping people in wheelchairs reach goods, stocking shelves, sorting donations.

"I call myself the all-around," she said.

Cook has suffered seizures most of her life and never worked steadily. These days she gets by on Supplemental Security Income. She lives right around the corner from Metro Caring

"Metro Caring, they do a lot for people," she said. "I'm helping people. I enjoy being with people. I enjoy helping."

Heitzenrater said he and Farnam enjoy coming into Metro Caring and admire its holistic approach. His and Farnam's output has grown from 700 pounds the first year they donated to Metro Caring to about 1,600 this year.

“We try to do what we can,” Heitzenrater said. “We encourage our friends to do the same. Everyone has extra zucchini that gets away from them.”

Paul Heitzenrater shows a photo of a huge bounty of produce harvested from the garden in his Montclair backyard, Oct. 12, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There's an app for that.

While pantries want to provide fresh food, produce requires special handling and can’t be stored long. That can be a challenge if it is trickling in a few squash plants at a time, instead of the hundreds of pounds of food Heitzenrater and Farnam take by car or truck to Metro Caring every week during the growing season.

One answer is to download Fresh Food Connect to your phone. If you live in one of the ZIP codes it serves, you’ll be able to arrange for a food rescuer hauling a wagon by bike to pick up produce from your porch and consolidate it with other donations.

The cyclists might find one or two squash or just a bouquet of basil on a porch. By the time their weekly rounds are done, they have a couple hundred pounds, said Cindy Chang, executive director of Groundwork Denver, which grows food, plants trees and spearheads other projects in lower-income communities and is one of three organizations behind Fresh Food Direct.

“If we can bring you … a hundred pounds of produce, that makes it easier on that end,” Chang said. “And the gardener doesn’t have to do anything.”

Her Fresh Food Connect partners are Denver Urban Gardens, which provides resources, training, and support to gardeners and farmers in the metro area; and Denver Food Rescue, which collects edible produce and other highly perishable food that outlets such as grocery stores and farmers markets might otherwise throw away and gets it to pantries and free grocery stores that serve people in need. Up to 40 percent of the food produced in America is wasted.

In its first full season, last year, Fresh Food Connect served only Denver. This year it expanded to Colorado Springs, Boulder and one ZIP code in Wyoming, and the founders created a separate nonprofit with its own CEO for Fresh Food Connect. Scores of organizations in other states have expressed interest in the Denver app, Chang said.

“We like to think of it as a really hyperlocal solution to the food access issue,” she said.

Gardening is community.

It doesn’t get much more local than the front yard of the house Sabira Marike bought in Clayton in 2013. The DPS teacher wants her neighbors to pick what they want and has found children to be especially receptive. Along the way, she has learned how growing food can foster community.

“A couple of weeks ago I had so many cucumbers I couldn’t give them away,” she said. “The kids taught to me make agua de pepino.”

She, in turn, has initiated her young neighbors into the satisfaction of nurturing tiny plants into big producers and shown them how to collect eggs from her chickens.

“I’m a teacher,” she said. “I like educating the kids.”

Marike, who is expecting her second child, recently moved to a new house. It's not far from the first, which she plans to rent and continuing her DIY community garden there.

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