Eat your vegetables. Kids hear it often, and broccoli sometimes becomes a bargaining chip for dessert. However, many Americans cannot afford to push fresh food to the side of their plates. The Seattle-based Lettuce Link program partners local gardens and food banks to ensure that those in need not only eat, but eat well.
“Low-income individuals often can’t afford quality, fresh food. That has an impact on their overall health and puts a strain on families. A healthy diet is an important foundation for being successful,” says Elise Cope, community engagement coordinator for the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
A record demand
Food banks are experiencing record demand, with the Rainier Valley Food Bank serving nearly 11,000 people a month.
Founded in 1988, Lettuce Link is a program of Solid Ground, a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty. Lettuce Link coordinates with 65 gardens in Seattle, including p-patches and personal plots. The produce grown is donated to more than 20 area food banks.
“Some gardens have specific food-bank beds, and others glean extra from their personal plots. Each garden designs it however it works best for them,” said Lettuce Link program manager Michelle Bates-Benetua.
The volunteer gardeners grew and donated more than 20,000 pounds of organic produce in the past year.
“We use a lot of intensive farming techniques and try to get the most out of the square footage,” said Deb Rock, who oversees Interbay’s 2,012-square-foot garden.
“We’re serving a population that looks a lot like any of us. Needing help from the food bank could be a temporary situation, such as being a newly divorced mom,” she said.
“The challenge is that hunger doesn’t always look the same here [in the United States] as it does overseas, but it exists. People have to make hard choices — pay the rent or buy groceries — so more families are turning to food banks,” Bates-Benetua said.
Donations represent everything from vegetables to fruit, herbs and more. Sometimes food banks make advance requests for crops that particularly fly off the shelves.
Varieties are also planted for specific communities. Leafy greens, such as bok choy and mustards, are popular. The food bank recently requested fresh cilantro with the roots attached, which is used in Thai curries.
Lettuce Link further expanded its mission four years ago. A Wallingford resident donated use of his personal greenhouse to grow thousands of plant starts, which are given to gardeners. At the Rainier Valley Food Bank, starts were offered directly to food-bank customers for the first time this year.
“It’s so popular that we have to set up ropes and lines because crowds start forming,” Cope said.
Children’s education is also a growing focus. A Children’s Garden at the Marra Farm Giving Garden offers kids the opportunity to grow vegetables for themselves and their families.
While it’s possible to quantify the number of plants and pounds of donated food, it is the goodwill and compassion that is most abundant and immeasurable.
“My feelings for this program grow stronger and deeper every year. It never loses meaning to feed both the body and the soul,” she said.