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‘Cultivate Iowa’ recruits gardeners to reduce food insecurity

Gary Oppenheimer, co-founder of ampleharvest.org, speaks during his keynote presentation at the Cultivate Iowa Spring Into Action event (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).
Gary Oppenheimer, co-founder of ampleharvest.org, speaks during his keynote presentation at the Cultivate Iowa Spring Into Action event (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).
Cultivate Iowa is part of the Iowa Food Systems Council’s Food Access & Health Work Group (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).
Cultivate Iowa is part of the Iowa Food Systems Council’s Food Access & Health Work Group (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).
Many attendees at the Spring Into Action event at the Iowa Arboretum pledged to donate produce to local food pantries (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).
Many attendees at the Spring Into Action event at the Iowa Arboretum pledged to donate produce to local food pantries (Photo courtesy Cultivate Iowa).

Every year there seems to be something in each garden – cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, etc. – that results in a more bountiful harvest than expected. Even after giving bushel baskets of that produce away to family and friends, there still seems to be too much of it for consumption by one family.

Cultivate Iowa encourages gardeners to donate fresh produce that might otherwise go bad to local food pantries.

This campaign of giving is an initiative of the Iowa Food Systems Council’s Food Access & Health Work Group, and its aim is “to promote the benefits of food gardening and produce donation to create a sustainable future and healthier communities in Iowa.” The campaign is also associated with ampheharvest.org, which connects gardeners with food pantries across the nation.

Gary Oppenheimer, a co-founder of ampleharvest.org, was the keynote speaker at Cultivate Iowa’s March 11 “Spring Into Action” event at the Iowa Arboretum near Madrid. In only the second year of the campaign, the numbers of food pantries available for dropping off fresh produce doubled from 30 to 60. All 100-plus attendees at the kickoff event also pledged to donate or grow extra produce for food pantries this year. This will help those Iowans who don’t always have the money to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, which tend to be more expensive than other things at the store.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables may cost a little more, so often low-resource Iowans don’t spend that extra money to buy what’s much more nutritious for them,” said Angie Tagtow, one of the program coordinators and an environmental nutrition consultant. Tagtow also noted that fresh produce items are the first to be taken from food pantries, and studies show that these foods help reduce the risks of diet-related diseases.

Iowa’s food-insecure population is trending upward, Tagtow said, in part because some are struggling to make ends meet despite the fact that they are technically over the federal poverty line.

“We’re at about 13 or 14 percent of food insecure right now. We need to ensure that these people have access to healthful and nutritious food. A lot of families, especially one-parent families, are up to 200 percent of poverty levels.”

The Iowa Food Bank Association (IFBA), the agency that oversees six regions of food banks across the state, estimates that they served over 16 million pounds of groceries in 2012 and 22 million last year through their partner agencies. The association served approximately 395,000 food-insecure Iowans, including 137,000 children through food pantries, domestic violence shelters and senior centers.

“2013 had the highest levels of demand we’ve ever seen in Iowa [for food pantries] so we’re trying to keep up,” said Cory Berkenes, IFBA’s state director. “It’s always a challenge to have enough food available so it’ll be cool to have the link between hungry Iowans and people donating through programs like Cultivate Iowa.”

Berkenes went on to say that the latest studies indicate one in eight Iowans do not get enough to eat, and he notes there is no shame in needing assistance.

“People probably have no idea who else in their community is using [a food pantry],” said Berkenes. “It could be kids in the same class or someone you work with. We’ve had people come in after a house fire, someone being laid off of work, or if they’ve been involved in an accident. You don’t have to become reliant on it; just because you go doesn’t mean you can’t support your family. Everyone goes through bad times and we want them to know there are people out there who want to help them.”

Around the state, people are creating ways to provide low-resource Iowans with healthy foods; some are even educating them how to grow their own food. The men’s correctional facility in Newton partnered with the Food Bank of Iowa to produce food for nearby food pantries, growing 100,000 pounds of vegetables in 2012 and 75,000 pounds on 12 acres in 2013. The USDA’s SNAP program provides assistance for low-resource individuals and families across the country to purchase seeds with their food stamps. Gardening education is taking place in southwest Iowa’s Pottawattamie County through the WIC program. Some food pantries send vehicles to farmer’s markets to buy discounted produce at the end of events. The Iowa legislature recently (and unanimously) approved a tax credit up to $5,000 for any edible food donated to non-profit organizations. Tagtow also mentioned that there are community gardens springing up all over the state through church organizations, as well as entities like The United Way. A future article will provide more in-depth information on non-profit organizations serving food in central Iowa.

For more on donating produce, visit www.cultivateiowa.org/donate-produce/ and enter your zip code to find food pantries who will take fresh produce (keep in mind that many programs in the area only operate on certain days of the week). If you run a food pantry or a similar organization in your community you can register the location at www.AmpleHarvest.org.

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