I recently traveled to Brattleboro, Vermont to meet with the organizers of Edible Brattleboro. It is an informal group of people who believe that “access to fresh, healthy food is a right for everyone, regardless of means. This serves as the foundation for the work we do, and we do our best to remove barriers to getting our work, and therefore everything we offer is free.
The main drivers of this movement are Tom Green and Marilyn Chiarello, who worked to turn empty spaces and lawns into places of food production. Both are retired school teachers. Marilyn saw a TED Talk by Pam Warhurst in 2015 and decided something similar could be done in Brattleboro.
That first year, Edible Brattleboro approached the local food co-op and requested a strip of land between the parking lot and Whetstone Creek. The Coop accepted and the volunteers built a raised bed 4 feet by 8 feet. They have since expanded this space, growing strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and more. Volunteers plant, weed and water as needed. Anyone can help themselves to free food, no questions asked.
There are now gardens and fruit trees throughout the city that were created by Edible Brattleboro. I went around with Tom and Marilyn and looked at some of their projects. Three cherry trees are planted in front of the town hall and other fruit trees are planted on the school grounds. Another garden is at a rehab facility, Turning Point, where there are raised beds in the front lawn.
Another garden is at the Root Social Justice Center, at the edge of their parking lot. Volunteers created container gardens using 55 gallon food grade plastic drums using designs Tom found online. They have water reservoirs for the water to seep into the ground in the drums, and daily watering is not necessary. Tom also obtained cubic meter “intermediate drink containers” which originally contained sugar syrup. Again, he fitted them with water tanks to avoid daily watering.
Edible Brattleboro has been lucky to get small grants to support its activities. Although they are not 501-C3s themselves, they work under the auspices of Post Oil Solutions, a local non-profit organization that sponsors them. But they will work with any organization that helps them in their efforts.
Often low-income residents do not have the tools they need to garden. Luckily, in Brattleboro, that’s not a big deal because the city library has a “lending library” of kitchen tools and equipment they provided through a grant from the Vermont Foodbank. The library grant included money to buy a simple wooden structure in their parking lot to house the tools, and a part-time librarian to check on the tools at set times. For beginning gardeners, having one source for basic tools can be a big savings.
We also visited a large greenhouse to extend the season and grow things like tomatoes and peppers in a controlled environment. Tom Green and some volunteers set it up this winter, and they’re looking forward to using it soon. It sits on space donated by the Brattleboro Retreat Farm, a non-profit organization.
There is a weekly Farmer’s Market in Brattleboro and Tom and Marilyn cannot speak highly enough of the generosity of the farmers. When the market closes each week, volunteers from Edible Brattleboro visit the market and collect produce donated by farmers. They got a grant to buy a large refrigerator to hold perishables and have an outdoor “Share the Harvest” table the next day at Turning Point.
For more information about Edible Brattleboro, visit their website, ediblebrattleboro.org or their Facebook page, facebook.com/EdibleB.
So what can you do? All communities have both people in need and gardeners. What most towns need are people like Tom and Marilyn. People who are committed to helping, giving time and being organized. With the exception of Tom’s work building the greenhouse and the large self-watering containers, no special skills were needed for what they did.
Some sort of organizational structure is needed. I like the idea of joining an existing nonprofit so that grants and donations can go to a certified 501-C3, allowing donors to take tax deductions. It also lets people know that their money will be used properly.
There are organizations you could link up with, maybe. You are probably already familiar with the soup kitchens and food banks in your city or a nearby town. So you could plant a few more this year with the idea of sharing. Or you could help organize others in your area to join you.
Churches are another good place to start gardens. They usually have lawns in full sun and people who want to help others. The soil in any lawn usually needs improving, but I bet most farmers would be happy to give compost or composted cow manure to add to the soil. Garden centers are usually willing to give out a few seeds or seedlings when the time comes, or maybe a few bags of compost. So all you need is people power. I bet you will be satisfied with the willingness of others to help you. So get started!
Henry plans to share fresh vegetables this year with Willing Hands, a nonprofit that serves his town and the Upper Valley with food for the needy. Contact him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or email@example.com.
Henry Homeyer writes a weekly gardening column. The author is not a staff member of Le Moniteur.