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Coloradans 'Grow And Give' Produce, Help Neighbors Facing Hunger During COVID-19

Jesse Noller sits in one of his greenhouses with his dog Churchill. Noller grows and donates produce to Community Food Share, a local food bank.
Stephanie Daniel
Jesse Noller sits in one of his greenhouses with his dog Churchill. Noller grows and donates produce to Community Food Share, a local food bank.

The loss of jobs and wages amid the coronavirus pandemic are factors behind an uptick in food insecurity. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports 8% of adults in Colorado didn’t have enough to eat in July, while 12% said they didn’t have enough money to feed their children. State and federal programs can help, but residents are also using their gardens to support their neighbors in need.

Jesse Noller lives in Lafayette in a split-level house with a big backyard. There’s enough room for three dogs, a coop with six chickens and his garden.

“I've just got tons and tons of tomatoes here. I've got eggplants down here, I've got chard right there,” he said.

Noller, 40, stands inside one of his two greenhouses. Each has two six-by-eight-feet raised garden beds.

“This is butter lettuce that I'm about to actually pull out and compost,” he continued. “I’m going to replace it with kale because kale’s a cold weather crop.”

He is on leave from his tech job which gives him more time to plant veggies and start a side business growing and selling mushrooms. But even with sales and feeding himself, Noller still has lots of leftover produce.

“What I’ve been doing is I’ve just been donating all of the vegetables and all the herbs,” he said. “I just harvest it up, bag it up and just drop it off at Community Food Share every week.”

Community Food Share is a food bank serving Boulder and Broomfield Counties. It works with 40 nonprofit organizations to provide fresh food, some of which is grown by residents like Noller.

Noller is part of the food bank’s Grow a Row program.

“(The) program is an opportunity for home gardeners to join in the fight against hunger,” said Julia McGee, director of communications for Community Food Share.

Community Food Share has helped feed residents for 40 years. Over this time, it has engaged gardeners in the community through several initiatives. The food bank has built hundreds of backyard gardens, cultivated their own gardens, gleaned local farms and partnered with Colorado farmers to either purchase food or receive donations directly from them.

Grow a Row was started five years ago and is a way for residents to support each other, said McGee.

“They share their bounties with their own neighbors who need help especially during this challenging time,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Community Food Share to change its business model. It also led to disruptions in the food supply chain, said McGee, as well as a 40% drop in volunteer support. But despite this, the food bank provided about a third more food compared to last year.

“We have distributed more than a million pounds of food a month and that's all happened since the pandemic hit,” she said. “The spike in demand has really hit our programs and our services.”

Growing and sharing food in hard times isn’t new. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to plant their own fruits and vegetables due to food shortages. By 1944, an estimated 20 million gardens produced more than 40% of all the produce eaten in the U.S.

These gardens were dubbed "victory gardens."

“We just wanted to expand the concept of the victory garden which you know started during World War II as an opportunity to enhance the food supply chain and really there was concern about food scarcity,” said Katie Dunker, who works at Colorado State University Extension and is the statewide Colorado Master Gardener coordinator.

In April, CSU Extension created a modern version of the victory garden called Grow and Give. While COVID-19 is not war times, Dunker said there are some similarities.

“In terms of concern for food supply disruption. But also, there’s just a very local level concern about accessing food, even at local grocery stores,” she said.

Jesse Noller looks at tomatoes in his greenhouse at his home in Lafayette. He donates most of his produce to Community Food Share, a local food bank.
Stephanie Daniel
Jesse Noller looks at tomatoes in his greenhouse at his home in Lafayette. He donates most of his produce to Community Food Share, a local food bank.

Households across the country are experiencing hunger and food insecurity. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been tracking how COVID-19 and lost jobs and wages is impacting food hardship in states. In July, the nonpartisan research and policy institute found 8% of Colorado adults said they didn’t have enough to eat, while 12% reported they didn’t have enough money to sufficiently feed their kids.

There are federal and state programs that help Coloradans access nutritious food for themselves and families. But across the state, residents are also using their green thumbs to support their neighbors in need.

Grow and Give has almost 600 registered home or community gardens in half of the state’s 64 counties. The website provides resources from how to grow food to labeling it for donation. The pandemic inspired people to start planting, said Dunker.

“A lot of us felt very helpless, I think. There's nothing I can do, I'm stuck at home,” she said. “How can I contribute to some kind of recovery effort or some kind of solution.”

The project has recorded over 1,300 individual donations and more than 25,000 pounds of food have been given locally. As communities continue to struggle, Dunker said Grow and Give fills an important gap.

“We have an opportunity to show up big time and continue to grow,” she said. “Encourage people to grow their own food and kind of take charge of some of this recovery effort.”

About 9% of Coloradans were facing hunger before COVID-19, according to Hunger Free Colorado. They surveyed 500 adults in June and found nearly 40% were struggling to afford food.

“There was mass unemployment. There was a lot of people who you know saw a drop in income even if they weren’t completely out of work, they might have reduced hours,” said Ellie Agar, director of communications for Hunger Free Colorado.

Hunger Free Colorado operates a statewide food resource hotline which connects people to a variety of food resources from federal nutrition programs to local food pantries and hot meal sites. Many are first-time callers, Agar said, and call volume has increased up to five times the normal rate.

“We really want to make sure that if we meet those nutritional needs, we get people enrolled in nutrition programs, connected with local resources that then they can free up some of their budget,” she said.

Noller has faced food insecurity too. The divorced father of two was working in the tech industry when the bubble burst in 2008.

“I’ve had to make the decision between feeding my pets and feeding myself. I’ve had to make the decision between feeding an addiction or feeding myself,” he said.

Growing produce helped him overcome alcoholism and debilitating mental health issues, he said.

Now he’s paying it forward. Noller wants to donate food from his greenhouses year-round and plans to start planting cold weather crops like spinach, asparagus and brussels sprouts.

“The reason why I’ve been doing this is to give back, is to do something different,” he said, “is to have a have a sense of community and home and helping people because I’ve been in their shoes.”

Corrected: October 6, 2020 at 11:49 AM MDT
A previous version of this story wrongly attributed a quote to Julia McGee. The attribution was corrected to Katie Dunker.
Corrected: October 1, 2020 at 9:31 AM MDT
A previous version of this story stated Community Food Share has distributed more than a million pounds of food since the coronavirus pandemic started. It has been updated to reflect the correct amount, which was more than a million pounds of food a month.
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