Whenever Allison Brown casts her horticulturist's glance at the fine lawns and landscaped grounds of churches and synagogues, her social activist heart beats faster. "If they could only plant on their beautiful front lawns a three-foot circle of a vegetable garden!" she says. "Even such a symbolic gesture would be a real statement on hunger."
Then Brown cites the existence in the city of more than 20,000 vacant lots--a rough estimate by the District's Department of Environmental Services--plus the uncounted wealth of tracts lying idle in the surrounding counties. "We could feed hundreds of poor families on what could be grown on just a small percentage of the plots of land not currently used," she says.
"Last year, a program in Seattle, Washington, donated on a single day as much as 5,700 pounds of produce. Okay, those people in Seattle really got their resources together: They had the firehouses serving as drop-off sites and got the armed forces to transport the food. But here we could begin with just 10 new community gardens and feed a hundred families! Just keep in mind that the average vegetable garden costs no more than $25 to start, and it yields about $400 worth of tax-free, inflation-proof food."
Brown, 31, is one of two full-time staff members of GROW--Garden Resources of Washington--a coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to urban gardening. Founded in November 1980 and headquartered at the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, GROW is now mailing letters offering "a challenge to area congregations and civic groups to plant a Pledge Garden in Spring 1983."
A pledge garden is one in which at least a portion of the food grown is pledged to the needy or to food banks and pantries, soup kitchens and other community efforts against hunger.
GROW's packet of information in its Pledge Garden Project cites grim statistics: "In our area, in the last week in August, over 11,000 people were served by 40 food agencies. This represents an increase of 25-100 percent at most of these agencies and it is still rising. The Capital Area Food Bank alone distributes food at a current rate of 100,000 lbs. per month."
GROW lists ways "to attack hunger in your community": starting a community garden with neighbors or fellow congregation members, "especially if membership includes lower income or elderly persons"; finding land in the neighborhood and helping others get started; planting your own vegetable garden and pledging part of the produce; helping senior citizens clear and dig up a vacant lot; starting a tool library for persons who want to garden but have no tools; collecting garden produce and delivering it to the needy.
One heartwarming example of a slightly different pledge gardener is Peggy Goetz, 28, a free-lance fiber artist. Last year Goetz studied gardening in the District's Master Gardener's Program, which asks for a donation of 50 hours of community work instead of a registration fee. At the suggestion of GROW's Brown, Goetz signed up as a volunteer at The Washington Home, a nursing home on Upton Street NW, and began working with residents on a 20-by-20-foot garden last April.
"We grew everything!" Goetz says. "We had a bumper crop of tomatoes. I have no idea how much, but it was a lot. We grew green beans, peppers, zucchini squash and yellow squash, cucumbers, onions, basil, carrots, watermelon, radishes, lettuce and marigolds. About 12 residents participated. Some days it was too hot for them to come out, and not every one of them felt up to working in the garden every day. On any given day we had from four to eight people working outdoors, but never all 12 of them at the same time.
"Excepting two, they were all wheelchair-confined, so unless they have a reason to go out, they don't go out. But they loved to go into the garden--to plant, weed and harvest. But everyone's interest really started rolling when the residents prepared and cooked what we harvested.
"Our group is now larger, very enthusiastic, and we are ready to start again this spring."
GROW doesn't have a field staff and works through volunteers such as Goetz. But GROW provides training for volunteers, and Brown and other horticulturists will conduct two workshops to explain how to start a community garden, locate idle land, organize gardeners and tap local sources of horticultural expertise. The first workshop is on Feb. 17, at the Washington Urban League conference room, 3501 14th St. NW, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the second is on Feb. 19, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at GROW's office at 1429 V St. NW. Preregistration is necessary, and there is a fee of $5 waived for people over 60. The number to call for more information is 234-6300.
"Our emphasis is on working in the District," Brown says, "but our methods are applicable anywhere in the metropolitan area. In 10 years I would like to see 100,000 gardens bloom!"