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An extra row of vegetables can help neighbours in need

Gardeners in Victoria can help alleviate hunger and promote healthy eating in the community simply by planting an extra row (or two) of veggies this spring and sharing the harvest in the fall with those in need.
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Marika Smith, executive director of the compost education centre, picks kale from the centreÕs demonstration garden.

Gardeners in Victoria can help alleviate hunger and promote healthy eating in the community simply by planting an extra row (or two) of veggies this spring and sharing the harvest in the fall with those in need.

The Grow a Row program is a people-helping-people initiative that collects fresh, healthy produce and distributes it to food lunch programs, community kitchens and food banks. Last year, the program collected 1.63 tonnes of fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs from gardeners and farmers.

This is the fifth year of the program, which is hosted by the Victoria Compost Education Centre, a non-profit organization with charitable status providing composting and organic gardening education to residents.

“It’s a fantastic program that helps address food security and urban self-sustainability,” said Marika Smith, executive director at the centre. “The idea is to teach people and their children how to grow food for themselves and others. It is very satisfying to see children coming in to donate veggies grown in their own garden.”

Every year, up to 65 urban gardeners grow a variety of vegetables, including zucchini, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and carrots, as well as herbs and edible flowers. Harvesting runs from May to October.

“We’re always eager to get local produce,” said Kate Longpre, manager of the Vic West Community Centre, where some of the produce collected goes towards feeding a dinner group at the centre.

Other organizations that benefit from fresh produce include Our Place, YMCA/ YWCA Youth Housing Initiative and Young Moms program, Burnside Gorge Community Association and the Sooke Food Bank. This year organizers are expanding the program to include shelters, community centres and schools.

The Grow a Row program is part of a grassroots movement active in communities across North America inspired by a program that began in Winnipeg in 1986. Every year, volunteers collect more than 453 tonnes (1 million pounds) of produce for the needy in Canada.

“Donating fresh produce can be very personal,” said Susan Antler, national advocate for Plant a Row, Grow a Row in Ontario. “You are sharing something you created yourself with somebody in need.”

She said that every community who implements the program decides on vegetables to plant based on soil, growing conditions and cultural tastes. Seasoned gardeners can grow or volunteer to mentor others on how to grow.

Throughout the year, the Victoria Compost Education Centre also offers free gardening workshops for low-income families who wish to learn how to grow food for themselves and to share with their community.

The biggest challenge, said Longpre, is getting the word out that the program exists. During the harvest, the Vic West Community Centre is open to collect produce 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Friday.

“Victoria has its share of urban farmers,” she said. “We just need to make them aware there is a place for them to bring their extra produce.”

Funding for the Compost Education Centre’s Grow a Row program is made possible through the 1% For The Planet Program, an international initiative supported locally through the Victoria Foundation. For more information, go to compost.bc.ca/projects/ grow-a-row.