By Susan Stewart
The current movement toward eating fresh, whole, local, organic foods (versus packaged, canned, preserved, processed, and mass-produced foods) is no longer relegated only to those with means and knowledge. Thanks to a program called Vineyards Growing Veggies™, now even the needy are getting healthier, tastier, locally-grown foods in the packages they receive.
Since 1884, the Steinbecks of Paso Robles have been growing their own food, to eat and to share with others. For them, the idea of cooperative, sustainable farming is not a new idea. So when Cindy Steinbeck Newkirk got wind of a project called Vineyards Growing Veggies (VGV), she jumped in without hesitation. The idea is for local vineyards to donate one or more fertile acres for the express purpose of growing food to feed the hungry – a simple enough concept on the face of it. But in the year since its inception, and despite the over 8,000 pounds of food that was grown and distributed to the hungry last summer alone, VGV has found that the administrative logistics are making it difficult to expand.
“The woman who got us involved in this project (Kathy Kelly of Winery Music Awards) has moved away, and we really need a new volunteer coordinator,” said Newkirk.
Vineyards Growing Veggies is an expansion of Urban Farming’s campaign, “Include Food,” which encourages property owners to include the planting of fruits and vegetables in their landscaping plans. Begun in Detroit in 2005, Urban Farming seeks to eradicate hunger by planting food on unused land and empty space and then giving it to the hungry. When Kathy Kelly met Urban Farming founder Taja Sevelle in 2007, they hatched the idea for VGV as a way to bring a city idea to the country.
In May 2008, over 30 volunteers gathered at Steinbeck Vineyards to plant the seeds and seedlings that had been donated by local nurseries and farm supply companies. They returned to weed, maintain and then harvest the crops throughout the year. Enlisting the help of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, the fresh fruits and vegetables were distributed to those who need it most.
An estimated 35,000 people in this county are considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not have the means to purchase enough food for themselves and their families for a healthy, well-nourished life. The food produced by this one acre in this one vineyard during this one year, went a long way toward filling their needs. Plums and apples, artichokes and cucumbers, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, corn, peppers, garlic, asparagus, onions, and herbs – all found their way into the bags, boxes, and barrels provided by the Food Bank and its partner agencies.
While feeding the hungry is its most important goal, VGV does much more. “Volunteers come from cities and towns all over the county,” said Newkirk. “Whole families get involved; people are learning to grow their own food. And that completes that whole virtuous circle from farm to table.”
“We feel better and better about the quality of food we’re giving away,” said Cathy Enns, Communications Director for the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County. “Programs like VGV make it so easy for us because they do so much. All we have to do is pick it up.”
And there is an added bonus. “We’ve always wanted to include more fresh fruit and vegetables in the programs we supply, and now we have to.”
Enns explained that the shelf-stable foods which used to be the mainstay of Food Bank donations are becoming less and less available. “Off-items” or foods that have been mis-labeled are now being snapped up by discount stores like Dollar Tree, instead of going to food banks. VGV helps fill the void left by commercially-produced, packaged foods with fresh, local, and often organic fruits and vegetables. Enns is thrilled about this development because fresher is always healthier.
Despite overwhelming enthusiasm, generous donors and dozens of selfless volunteers, this great idea may grow fallow. Seeding, planting, maintaining and harvesting all require time, energy and great coordination. Cindy Newkirk can’t do it alone.
As she and Cathy Enns strolled the one-acre garden at Steinbeck recently, they brainstormed about the future of VGV. Enns said that Talley Vineyards has already started planting the food they will donate to the Food Bank this year.
“We’ve had five other vineyards step up and voice their willingness to donate acreage,” said Newkirk. “Some have even offered to help fund it, too. But we really need a coordinator to pull it all together.”
Ideas that ranged from writing grants for salaries to planting larger gardens on fewer plots were tossed around amid the corn stalks in the bright afternoon soon.
Vineyards Growing Veggies puts fresh local produce into the homes of hungry families across the county. It brings total strangers together in the garden for a great common cause, educates the next generation about the importance of growing food, and promotes the field-to-table philosophy in us all. To find out more, or to volunteer to coordinate this amazing effort, contact Cindy Newkirk at 238-1854 or log on to www.steinbeckwines.com.
Susan Stewart has been writing about the history, people, events and issues that affect San Luis Obispo County for 15 years. She is grateful to the people she interviews who have taught her about everything from the cultivation of exotic mushrooms to the evolution of solar energy.