Stewards of the Vegetable Garden

by Liz Morrow

If you grow vegetables, you’ve been there. That time when you have so much zucchini, you can’t keep up with eating it… OR shredding it… OR freezing it… OR sharing it… you’ve even gone as far as to throw zucchinis inside vehicles whose windows are down. In fact, did you know that August 8th is officially “Leave a Zucchini on Your Neighbor’s Porch Day”?  And what about other vegetables that you have coming out of your ears? (Are you thinking of ears of corn? Well, now you probably are). You’ve dried your harvest. You’ve canned. You’ve forced your friends and family to take your excess and even provided recipes. Then, you  wonder why you work so hard at your garden if your friends, family and neighbors don’t even want the fruit of your labor! We just can’t help it and we certainly don’t want this fruit of our labor to be left to rot on the vine or be harvested yet sitting in our refrigerator crispers — wasted.

I’ve discovered that gardeners are generally of a nurturing nature. We care for living things… not just plants. We are the stewards of the nature within our control. As we care for the living plants and their pollinators, we can carry this nurturing nature of ours into our communities by donating our excess to food pantries, food banks, homeless shelters, etc. to contribute to the feeding of the hungry and helping local families.

In fact, “since 1995, over 20 million pounds of produce providing over 80 million meals have been donated by American gardeners. All of this has been achieved without government subsidy or bureaucratic red tape– just people helping people” (http://gardenwriters.org/gwa.php?p=par/index.html).

In our community, there are several places that want to nurture and help people and they are more than happy to receive our gardening excess.  For this article, three agencies contacted are excited about the possibility of receiving produce from home gardeners:

  • The Food Bank of Northern Nevada encourages and promotes a program called “Plant a Row for the Hungry.” This program uses the surplus from our gardens to help those who need it. You can participate by harvesting your garden throughout the growing season and taking your excess produce to several of the food pantries and agencies that they partnered with. The agencies will then distribute the food directly to those that need it.
  • The Reno Sparks Gospel Mission is always willing to accept your excess produce as well. Please call ahead at 323-5363 to ensure that someone is available to accept your donation.
  • St. Vincent’s Dining Room would love anything from our gardens. And they are also looking for volunteers to help out in their garden location on Valley Road. This is a great opportunity to garden if you don’t have a garden of your own. Their contact number is 329-5363.

As mentioned above, most gardeners are nurturers, and as stewards of this resource, food safety needs to be taken into account when donating your produce. “Fresh fruit and vegetables have unfortunately been linked to over 450 outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. since 1990. … [E]mploying a set of risk-reduction steps, known as good agricultural practices (GAPs), has been pointed to by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the best prevention against foodborne illness-causing pathogens.” (NC State University and A&T State University Cooperative Extension)

There are four main areas to consider when it comes to food safety:

  1. Clean and sanitized hands- Clean and sanitize your hands often. The best practice is to wash your hands with soap and clean, running water.  The safety risk of not washing your hands is the spreading of potentially harmful microorganisms and cross-contamination.
  2. Safe soil amendments– Composting is a great step in reducing environmental impact while providing nutrients to our plants. However, it’s imperative that you manage your composting process to ensure that pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella will be killed.
  3. Safe water– By ensuring the use of safe water for irrigation, the potential of microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables is reduced. Using non-potable water (water that is unsafe to drink because of contamination) can introduce pathogens. The best practice is to use a regulated, treated water source when growing, cleaning and preparing produce.
  4. Clean and sanitized surfaces and tools when harvesting and preparing food– Just as with your hands, it’s imperative to clean and sanitize counters, cutting boards and kitchen and garden shears to prevent contamination. When harvesting, consider wearing one-use only gloves and put the harvest into a clean, sanitized container.

When it comes time to washing the harvest, it’s considered a best practice to lower risk by not washing the harvest until it is time to be consumed. Store your harvest in cool, pest-free area and containers or plastic bags for each crop. Again, wash the harvest before eating.

The use of fruit and vegetable washes, made with chemicals or other type of treatments, has not been endorsed by the FDA because the safety of their residues has not been evaluated and their effectiveness has not been tested.

Our Extension office has several fact sheets on food safety in the home, school or community garden. Additional fact sheets are available on preventing foodborne pathogens, guides on washing fresh produce and composting practices.

This year, as you’re being a good steward planning and tending to your garden, won’t you consider growing an extra row to donate to one of the agencies that help families in need while feeding the hungry?