By Liz Kirchner
Weaverville – On a sunny June morning, Reems Creek Nursery farmhands in masks and bright T-shirts that said “We are Plant People” loaded hundreds of tomato plants onto a farm truck, calling off the variety names: “Two flats of Cherokee Purple!” “Mortgage Lifter!” and “Two more Big Boys!”
In an innovative effort to curb food waste and bolster self-reliance, those tomatoes along with squash, cucumber, melons and herb plants were destined for Beacon of Hope food pantry in Marshall.
Every spring, nurseries and farms raise vegetable plants, called “starts” for sale at farmers’ markets and shops, cramming their greenhouses with spring garden crops like lettuces and cabbage, then summer-season crops like Reems Creek’s tomatoes, squash, melons and herbs.
By June, planting season is over, but there are veggies left in local greenhouses – some over-tall, lanky and yellow – hungry to be planted.
On many farms, those unsellable starts would have wound up in compost bins and dumpsters.
This spring, several farms, including Reems Creek, donated their remaining vegetable plants to Beacon of Hope. The wider community – even food pantry clients – contributed starts too, altogether giving out an estimated 5,200 since early May.
Taking a break from a Friday afternoon food distribution, Beacon of Hope Executive Director and CEO, Jessie Koontz, in sparkly turquoise paisley and unflagging enthusiasm, is standing in the shade of the food pantry building that is landscaped with rosemary bushes and strawberries.
Koontz says that, in this pandemic year, those donations may be more critical than ever.
In the wake of COVID-19 job loss and school closings, food pantries across the 16 western North Carolina counties have added nearly 30,000 clients to their monthly rolls rocketing the number of people seeking food in the region to nearly 100,000, and that’s reflected locally.
“Beacon had gone from serving 689 families in February to 987 by the end of April,” said Koontz. “These starts have been offered, free of charge, to those families – that’s more than 2,500 individuals – that we serve each month, as well as to the community at large.”
She talks about the pandemic’s silver lining too that’s found in the nutrition and self-sufficiency of fresh produce, gardening and the collaboration behind the starts effort.
“Everybody’s been talking about Victory Gardens – people getting chickens for the first time or pigs. Our food supply chain was all wonky in the beginning. And everybody was staying home anyway, so why not work on being more self-sufficient? It’s a good year for it when there’s a horrible pandemic!”
The plan to provide the starts began modestly. The Marshall Native Gardens Initiative, because of the pandemic, couldn’t hold their annual plant sale. They set up a table to offer two plants per family at Beacon.
But then it just kept growing, Koontz said, and other farms and gardens saw the effort and joined in.
“Now we’ve pretty much flooded Madison County, if not parts of Buncombe and Yancy, with garden starts. Which is awesome!”
A lot of people have been really grateful because spring rains have caused garden failures and people who never gardened before can put plants in pots, and getting free starts is great, she said.
Providing vegetable plants is an innovative way to get food into the hands and mouths of food-insecure people.
“A few years ago, Beacon shifted its programming to implement a client-empowerment model and so, not only are we providing an emergency food box, but we’re also providing starts, so you can grow your own and be more self-sufficient,” Koontz said.
To that self-sufficiency, Reems Creek donated nearly 3000 starts to Beacon of Hope in its truckloads of Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters and Big Boys.
“Interestingly, our business started out growing vegetable starts,” Susan Reavis, one of Reems Creek’s family-owners said, interviewed recently in a sweltering greenhouse as she tinkered with watering equipment preparing fall chrysanthemum cuttings.
“A major part of our company’s mission statement is to provide people with what they need to be successful gardeners. So, being able to donate plants and knowing they’ll be appreciated is very fulfilling,” said Reavis.
Before the pandemic, 46 million people across the U.S. received food through pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies. An enormous challenge, but in the wake of the COVID-19, it’s estimated that 17.1 million more people could find themselves without enough food.
This summer, local food pantries, farms and communities are finding innovative ways to meet that challenge.