Jessica Self is like most gardeners: She can’t wait for summer and the chance to top a sandwich with a big slice of tomato she’s grown in the dirt on her own.
And like others, she always plants more than her family needs. That’s when neighbors receive the fruits of her labor, too.
But back in February 2018, Self and others at RIO Revolution Church came up with an idea to take that a step further. Why not bring gardeners together with their surplus fruits and vegetables and give them away to those not able to till the soil on their own or afford fresh produce from the store?
The coming together of the local resident and others created The Giving Garden; it made its debut in summer 2018, giving away homegrown tomatoes, squash, okra, cucumbers, watermelons, corn and herbs. Self said it was a good year.
“By the end of the year, we were doing really well,” she said. “We were feeding about 45 families. We had one man who we knew as Ron. He would come by every Friday and drop off a bag full of tomatoes.”
Launching 2019 effort
The 2019 version of The Giving Garden got underway on June 28 and will continue each Friday at RIO Revolution, 3419 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Produce will be handed out free of charge to anyone who desires it, from 5:30-7 p.m. in the church parking lot. Self said they are definitely in need of more growers.
She said this past week, there were three chemotherapy patients who came looking for fresh vegetables. “They said their doctors told them to eat healthier,” Self said. “They can’t afford to buy the fresh produce because of having to pay medical co-pays. Some are also raising kids or grandkids.”
The location was chosen because of its easy accessibility on East Lamar Alexander Parkway and because its where Self attends church services. She wants to stress, however, that growers and those coming for the bounty of fresh food don’t have to do the same. It is a community project.
“It is not a church thing,” Self explained. “It’s a love thing.
“This is all about connecting the people who have too much food and it ends up going bad and the people who don’t have it,” Self said. “People plant more than they need. No one wants good produce to go to waste.”
Also, someone can simply drop off the fresh fruits and veggies. Self and other volunteers will be set up the entire time to hand it out. They set up their lawn chairs and arrange the food in the backs of their vehicles. People can walk from car to car and take what they need.
In addition to local gardeners, Self wants to reach out to farmers markets and farmers who would love to participate. She said she has contacted a peach supplier to see if they might want to help out.
Share, share, share
Self has to laugh when she thinks back on her overabundance of crops. She said she did reach out to neighbors, but it didn’t solve her problem.
“My neighbors couldn’t receive any more of the bounty,” she said. “That’s the nicest way to put it. They weren’t answering their doors.”
Since they were getting all they needed, Self said it just made sense to look deeper into her community. She just wants to get the word out. She said she will let the local Veterans Affairs office know so veterans can take advantage of the program.
She still remembers what happened back in 2018 when she took some tomatoes to a man at church.
“He started tearing up,” this gardener said. “He told me this was the first year he wasn’t physically able to plant his own garden. He hadn’t told anybody, but he missed having fresh produce.”
It also happens frequently at The Giving Garden.
The whole experience has been rewarding, Self said. She has gotten to know many of the people who come to partake of the fresh fruits and veggies. She said they are simply looking for a step up, not a handout.
“You give them tomatoes or corn and they start crying,” she said. “It has been very emotional for people.”
You only have to look at how family and friends treat one another during tragic or celebratory times to understand the power of food, Self explained. People provide food when families experience a death, when gathered for reunions or the celebration of a wedding or birthday.
“Food is a love language all in itself,” she said. “Feeding someone with fresh vegetables is a powerful thing.”