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Thursday, June 3, 2004 09:24 am

Plant a row for the hungry

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This summer, many vegetable gardeners will have buckets full of tomatoes, cucumbers by the armload, and zucchini coming out their ears. Many successful gardeners take for granted their ability to grow vegetables, forgetting that many people do not have access to fresh vegetables and fruits.

Enter Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national program with the goal of encouraging gardeners to help feed the hungry and homeless. Plant a Row was launched in 1995 by the Garden Writers Association of America with the goal of encouraging gardeners to donate extra produce to local agencies who serve the needy. And there's plenty of need: 33 million Americans, including 13 million children, live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger.

Locally, Plant a Row is managed by Master Gardener volunteers with the support of the staff of the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. All interested gardeners are invited to become involved. Local committee members this year are growing and caring for three Plant a Row-designated vegetable gardens, totaling more than 3,500 square feet. The goal is to donate 6,000 pounds of produce from these gardens.

Local home and commercial gardeners last year donated 33,370 pounds of fresh produce to the Central Illinois Foodbank, an 85 percent increase over 2002. One local gardener donated more than 5,000 pounds of produce in 2003.

So far this year, produce donations to the Central Illinois Foodbank have totaled 1,800 pounds. This includes 124 pounds of strawberries and 100 pounds of spinach donated by a local commercial gardener.

The Central Illinois Foodbank was established in 1982 by a coalition of churches and nonprofit organizations concerned about hunger and poverty. A regional distribution center for donated food, the Foodbank last year sent more than 6 million pounds of food to more than 240 food pantries, soup kitchens, residential feeding programs, and after-school programs in 21 central Illinois counties.

The most used, and appreciated, produce includes fruits of any kind, potatoes, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, and onions.

Gardeners may drop donations off at the Central Illinois Foodbank at 2000 E. Moffat Ave. in Springfield. Hours of operation are 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Arrange for your produce to be picked up or other collection options by calling the Foodbank at 522-4022. This summer, Plant a Row volunteers also will provide Saturday drop-off sites at local gardening businesses.

For more information, contact Sangamon-Menard Extension at 782-4617. The national Plant a Row Web site is www.gardenwriters.org/par.

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