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Sandoval County Master Gardeners' food pantry garden receives international award

CORRALES, N.M. - One family's project to help people in need has turned into an international award-winning community project that produces fresh vegetables valued at more than $50,000 for Albuquerque area food pantries.

Penny Davis, right, coordinator of the Sandoval County Master Gardener's Seed2Need project, watches as volunteer Sonia Waxler delivers freshly picked cucumbers to the container. Davis began the project in 2008 after reading about the large number of New Mexicans affected by the financial crisis. This year's project will deliver more than 30,700 pounds of produce valued at more than $50,000 to food pantries in the Albuquerque area. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Sandoval County Master Gardeners, a volunteer program of the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service, received the 2011 International Master Gardeners Association Search for Excellence Award for its Seed2Need project. The award in the community service category was presented during the organization's national conference on Oct. 13 in Charleston, West Virginia.

The 2008 financial crisis and its impact on New Mexico families inspired Master Gardener Penny Davis to channel her love of gardening into producing vegetables for Albuquerque area food pantries.

"After reading newspaper stories about the number of people needing food assistance from local food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens because they had lost their jobs or homes, I decided I could do something to help," Davis said.

She and her husband, Sandy, began the Seed2Need project in 2008 on a 40-foot-by-40-foot piece of land in a neighbor's abandoned horse corral. The project has grown into a Sandoval County Master Gardener-sponsored project where more than 40 Master Gardeners and many other community volunteers contribute to planting, raising and harvesting more than 30,700 pounds of produce at three plots covering 1.5 acres.

"That first year we produced a lot of green beans, sweet corn and zucchini that we donated to Storehouse West to be shared with families in need," Davis said.

"Now we are a non-profit organization supplying Storehouse West and St. Felix Food Pantry in Rio Rancho and the Rio Grande Food Project in Albuquerque with tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, squash, green peppers, zucchini, carrots, green chile, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli and beets."

Davis co-chairs the project with Master Gardeners Sam Thompson, Nella Sanchez-Cook, Victor Scherzinger, Brad Haslam, Dennis Hainsey and Barbara Dawson.

The Need

Each month in New Mexico, 89,000 people visit pantries, shelters and soup kitchens in search of emergency food for their families. With the decrease in federal and state funding and an 8 percent decline in private donations nationwide, food pantries are having problems getting the basic commodities for their clients, let alone fresh produce.

"We are fortunate to be the recipients of fresh vegetables from Seed2Need during the summer months," said Marge Haas, vice president and bookkeeper at St. Felix Food Pantry in Rio Rancho. "A lot of our food is donated from grocery stores. Unfortunately, the fresh produce has been picked over and it may not be as good as the produce we get from Seed2Need."

"It's a distribution problem," Davis said. "Road Runner Food Bank buys fresh produce and distributes it to food pantries, but by the time the produce reaches the clients a lot of it is going bad. The advantage of Seed2Need is that we can get the vegetables to the pantry within a couple of hours of harvesting it. It's so fresh it still has dirt on it."

The Land

"This project is a collaborative effort between Corrales property owners Victor and Nora Scherzinger and Dr. Robert Lynn and his wife, Janet Braziel, and the Master Gardeners," Davis said. "The landowners provide the land, electricity and irrigation water. We provide the manpower and expertise."

The advantages to the property owner include having a "farmers' market" in their own backyard, the aesthetic value of a lush, well-tended garden, and the personal satisfaction of helping a worthwhile cause.

"They may also qualify for a charitable contribution for out-of-pocket expenses and for a reduction in property tax as a result of converting vacant land to agricultural use," Davis said. "We have had several other property owners offer their land to our project."

The Crop

Selecting the types of vegetables was based on interviews with the food pantries, as well as assessment of nutritional value, popularity, productivity and length of harvest. The varieties were selected based on disease resistance, research conducted by NMSU and internet research.

"We start the plants in late February and early March in 4-inch pots under grow lights," Davis said. "La Paloma Greenhouse in Corrales has given us greenhouse space for the plants once they are transplanted into six-pack trays. The greenhouse employees take care of the plants until they are ready to go into the garden."

The Manpower

Master Gardeners are individuals who have participated in extensive training by NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences faculty and Extension specialists. In return, they volunteer their time answering calls on their county's gardening hotline, conducting educational programs and developing and maintaining community gardens.

More than 40 Sandoval County Master Gardeners participate in the garden project.

Help also comes from Cub Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, Eagle Scout candidates, 4-H clubs, church groups, private individuals and other community service organizations.

"Preparing the garden and planting is a community effort," Hainsey said. "All the best intentions in the world wouldn't make a difference in fighting hunger in New Mexico without a deep commitment to volunteerism shown by a large group of Sandoval County Master Gardeners, interested members of the public, and community and company volunteer groups. Our volunteers are what make the program work."

An example of that help came this summer when a winter garden was added to carry production into November.

"A group of 60 young people from Southern California, who were attending a SAT prep class at the University of New Mexico, helped us plant the garden in July," Davis said. "We paired each group of four students with a Master Gardener and they planted the 1,500 cabbage and broccoli plants in four hours. We couldn't have done it ourselves."

Each summer day 10 to 15 volunteers arrive at the garden in the early morning coolness. They scrutinize each row of plants looking for ripe vegetables.
"I like that all of this produce goes directly to the food pantry for people who cannot afford fresh produce," Thompson said while picking tomatoes. "This gives them an opportunity to have it in their diets. I think it's a very worthwhile project to be involved in."

While Master Gardener Lenore Reeve gathers tomatoes, she adds, "I love being outside gardening. This is a way to really help the situation where so many people are out of work and really need this kind of thing. It's just the natural thing to do."

"I like gardening, but I don't have much time to raise my own," Sonia Waxler said while searching for cucumbers. "So I come here and help whenever I can. It's a wonderful thing to see the vegetables grow. They are so good and plump, better than what you get in the stores."

Once the full crates are gathered, they are weighed and delivered to the food pantries. During peak harvest, volunteers pick more than 3,500 pounds of produce a week.

The labor of love is not over when the day's produce is harvested. The volunteers then grab hoes and attack the weeds encroaching on the vegetable plants.

The project's gardens are not the only source for Seed2Need's produce.

"We wanted to expand what we are doing here in the garden. So now we go to the Corrales Farmers' Market and encourage people to buy a little extra produce to donate to Seed2Need to be delivered to the food pantries," Hainsey said. "In addition to that, at the end of the day, the vendors donate whatever they have left. During the first two Sundays of doing this, we received more than 1,000 pounds of produce to add to our donation."

"We appreciate all of the help our community has given us," Davis said.

The Dream

In 2008 Davis never expected her idea to grow into the size project it has become. Now she dreams of doing more.

"I would like to do a four- or five-acre garden, but I'm afraid to tell our volunteers because they already think I've lost my mind and they might bolt," she said. "The Village of Corrales is uniquely suited to this type of project. There is so much vacant land that has irrigation rights. And it's rich soil. We could easily do four or five acres. We've had that much land offered. It's just a matter of getting more volunteers and getting equipment donated that would make the gardening less labor intensive."

For more about the NMSU Extension Master Gardener program, visit the website at http://aces.nmsu.edu/ces/mastergardeners/

To get involved with Seed2Need, contact Penny Davis at Seed2Need@gmail.com.