At 79, Annie Patterson still tends row after row of lima beans, eggplants, okra, peppers and Better Boy tomatoes in summer, as well as other crops through the year.
Harvesting these gives the Camden, S.C., native a powerful way to keep dear friends close and draw new acquaintances a little more so.
So in July Patterson become a donor for Backyard Friendship Gardens, joining about 20 other new recruits. She fills baskets of fresh, colorful food from her Charlotte garden to help the Friendship Trays meal-delivery program in Mecklenburg County.
As more people jump on the return trend of the backyard vegetable garden, it’s a way to help the needy get good local produce and avoid having backyard bounties go to waste.
Patterson also receives the meals five days a week, paid for with her granddaughter’s help. Those deliveries are how she came to tell a driver that she wanted to donate food.
“I love to share,” Patterson said, sitting inside her home off Old Pineville Road that is surrounded front-to-back with flowers and edible plants. “When my garden makes a lot of food, I want to share it.”
Backyard Friendship Gardens is an effort to shift the tilted scales of food distribution between those who have it and those who need it, said Henry Owen, director of Friendship Gardens, a network of church, school and other gardens that provides fresh food for Friendship Trays.
A network of home gardeners who donate food can prevent waste when their beds are at peak production, Owen said. The donated food also helps Friendship Trays meet the cost of producing more than 700 meals a day for people who are elderly, handicapped or convalescing.
“Gardeners often grow more than they need,” Owen said. “This gives them an outlet where they know it will be respected and fed to people who really need the fresh, healthy food.”
Helping fight obesity
In announcing a campaign against childhood obesity, first lady Michelle Obama estimated that 23.5 million Americans live in areas without easy access to fruits and vegetables.
In Mecklenburg County, the sick and the elderly sometimes face additional challenges for getting basic nutrition, and their need for it might be critical, said Lucy Bush Carter, executive director of Friendship Trays.
“We serve a lot of people who have chronic illnesses,” she said. “If you’re having chemotherapy, nutrition is tremendously important. People who are taking a lot of medications need healthy food along with the medications.”
Meal deliveries also support living independently. “We’re kind of the last stopgap to keep them in their homes,” Bush Carter said.
Recruiting more gardeners
Friendship Trays delivers one meal on weekdays, with extras on Fridays, at a cost to the nonprofit of more than $6 each. More than 50 percent of recipients pay just 65 cents. Between 8 percent and 11 percent pay $4.50, the maximum charge, and equal numbers get meals free.
Donations from corporations, churches and individuals cover the difference, but costs continue to rise.
In its first three weeks, the Backyard Friendship Gardens program brought in more than 500 pounds of produce, including more than 150 pounds from Patterson’s garden.
Owen hopes to recruit more gardeners through the program’s website ( www.friendship-gardens.org) and through social media. Patterson had already been donating to other organizations when she told Adam Jenkins, the volunteer driver who delivers her meals, that she wanted to help.
He made deliveries next door to Patterson’s sister for six years before her death and made drop-offs at Patterson’s home for about a year. Jenkins sometimes stops by with his children so they can see Patterson and her garden.
“I’ve been on the same route for so long,” said Jenkins, a volunteer with 10 years as a driver. “Now these people are just family.”
That’s the magic of the Friendship Trays programs, Bush Carter said, with the community pitching in to take care of one another in big and small ways.
“Friendship Trays builds relationships, and it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. Backyard Friendship Gardens “definitely adds to it.”
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