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Fighting hunger at home – can you dig it?

Fighting hunger at home – can you dig it?

By Sue Coyle

Sopris Sun Correspondent

In a YouTube video made last April, El Jebel resident Kim Doyle Wille speaks excitedly in front of Carbondale’s Third Street Center and gestures towards several brown, seemingly lifeless garden beds behind her. The spring wind buffets the microphone and tries to drown out her words, but Wille is nothing if not determined. Today that determination is stronger than ever, and the bare dirt beds have been transformed into abundant vegetable gardens.

Wille is founder and director of Plant a Row to End Hunger (PAR-TEH) a philanthropic enterprise providing fresh, organic produce to those who could not otherwise afford it. The network of gardens stretch from Aspen to Rifle, Gypsum, Eagle and Paonia. One of the largest plots is part of the Good Seed Community Garden at the Orchard Church in Carbondale.

These gardens provide food for Lift-Up as well as other food banks and residents of western Colorado. “I feel like I was put on this earth to do this project,” said Wille. That sense of purpose is contagious, as hundreds of volunteers have contributed in large and small ways to the project.

Seeds, many of them precious heirloom seeds, were donated by a variety of individual and commercial contributors. Topsoil and compost were delivered by Pitkin County Landfill. But the most important resource is the hundreds of helping hands that have dug in the dirt, hauled rocks and soil, planted, weeded, watered and tended the garden plots throughout the summer.

According to Wille, 1,200 packets of herb and vegetable seeds were distributed to over 200 gardens, and 35 plots were built and planted in only 30 days. Campers and staff from the Extreme Sports Camp, a summer program for autistic young adults, pitched in to build rock borders, plant seeds, lay recycled cardboard under the wood chip paths and contribute whatever labor was needed. Students from Diane Alcantara’s summer ESL (English as a second language) class have done the same, as well as speaking about their gardening experiences on the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program on KDNK.

 A recent visit from The Sopris Sun to the Good Seed Garden joined Diego and Genesis, two young volunteers from the ESL program who have stayed on after summer school was over. Wille calls them “my regulars.” They showed off the “broccoli forest,” which was planted by a Sunday school class from The Orchard and is exactly what it sounds like. With the help of Wille, the kids hunted for ripe squash and collected mounds of French fingerling radishes. They learned how to remove a zucchini from its vine. They watered the pumpkin patch and the huge bed of tomatillos, dangling like miniature Japanese lanterns from their stalks.

“Kim helps us by giving us food,” said Diego, “and we pay her back by helping her.” When asked about her favorite vegetable, Genesis doesn’t hesitate. “Potatoes,” she said with a grin. “They’re awesome!”

Big plans

Wille’s plans for her organization are as many as her gardens. She anticipates “an abundance of food” in the next two to three weeks and hopes to do a fresh food distribution for Thanksgiving. She wants to “geo-tag” the gardens at different elevations, start canning and preserving classes, create a “Gardeners’ Harvest” cookbook, find grants to support PAR-TEH, hold a “gardening boot camp” next spring and more. Most of all, Wille wants to help educate the public not only about hunger, but also about the importance of nutrition.

“Fresh produce is expensive,” she explained, and when times are tough, “that’s the first thing to go.”

Plant a Row to End Hunger operates under the 501(c)3 umbrella of CORE (Community Office for Resource Efficiency) and is an arm of the Roaring Fork Food Policy Council. It also collaborates with Hunger Free Colorado, among other organizations.

According to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, one in six Americans face hunger, or food insecurity, on a regular basis. Food insecurity is defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

Feeding America has recently released a new study called “Map the Meal Gap,” which demonstrates that no county in the United States is exempt from hunger. Based on 2011 statistics, Eagle and Garfield counties have a food insecurity rate of 13.7 percent, while Pitkin County is only slightly lower with a rate of 13.3 percent. Those percentages total approximately 17,000 people in only three counties, and these numbers are expected to rise if Congress cuts benefits to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.) Under the current proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives, 47 million Americans will see their benefits reduced and over 200,000 children would lose their free school lunch meals — in many cases, their only reliable source of daily nutrition.

“If another country were doing this to our kids, we’d be at war, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”  So says actor Jeff Bridges, narrator of the documentary “A Place at the Table” and founder of the End Hunger Network. The film was recently shown in Glenwood Springs by Hunger Free Colorado.

Plant a Row to End Hunger understands it can’t solve this problem on a national level and it doesn’t aspire to. But Wille, her volunteers and others connected to the program say the program can provide healthy, organic, nutritious food to those in need – one row at a time.