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Originally published May 5, 2010 at 7:11 PM | Page modified May 6, 2010 at 10:47 AM

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Spare time? Feed the hungry, reap personal rewards

Volunteering to help feed your needy neighbors in these tough times might be a different twist on what to do with your weekend and leisure hours. But it's an idea with lots of personal payback.

Special to The Seattle Times

Food donations, by the numbers

• Shoreline-based Food Lifeline processed 2,993,021 pounds of food in fiscal 2009, using 6,681 volunteers contributing 34,858 hours of their time.

Northwest Harvest's food- distribution programs benefitted from 65,950 hours of volunteer time in 2008.

Solid Ground grew 16,300 pounds of food at Marra Farm in 2009 for food-bank donation, and 2,100 food-bank clients received seeds, plant starts and food gardening information.

Solid Ground also oversaw a harvest of 19,600 pounds of fresh fruit in its gleaning program — a 40 percent increase over 2008.

More than 7,000 hours of volunteer time went into Solid Ground's 2009 efforts.

• The city of Seattle's Human Services Department funds 17 food-bank sites around the city.

P-Patch Program gardeners around Seattle last year donated more than 27,000 pounds of food grown in 45 giving gardens.

If You Volunteer

Where to help

Spring Into Bed — Help build gardens for low-income people this Saturday. Call Stephanie Snyder-Soulseed at 206-708-9913. More info: www.springintobed.org.

Food Lifeline — Be a "food rescue assistant," help repack food or work special events such as this Saturday's Stamp Out Hunger drive. E-mail volunteer@fll.org. More info: www.foodlifeline.org.

City Fruit — Help map and care for fruit trees, glean fruit at harvest time, donate fruit from your own trees. E-mail info@cityfruit.org. More info: www.cityfruit.org.

Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle — Help plan a community orchard, grow food at a food bank, glean fruit from trees. 206-762-0604, e-mail info@gleanit.org. More info: www.gleanit.org.

Northwest Harvest — Help at a food bank, package food at a warehouse, make sandwiches for sack lunches. 206-923-7453 or e-mail stephanied@northwestharvest.org. More info: www.northwestharvest.org.

P-Patch Program — P-Patch gardeners can help grow food for donation in giving gardens, and deliver food to food banks. 206-684-0264. More info: www.cityofseattle.net/neighborhoods/ppatch.

Solid Ground — Help with the Community Fruit Tree Harvest, dig gardens with Lettuce Link at Marra Farm, help start the Seattle Community Farm, learn where to donate home produce. 206-694-6746, Ext. 3; e-mail lettucelink@solid-ground.org. More info: solid-ground.org.

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Volunteering to help feed your neighbors in these tough times might be a different twist on what to do with your weekend and leisure hours. But it's an idea with lots of personal payback.

A Girl Scout community-service project first led Jim Lockhart's family to a Shoreline warehouse to repackage food for the nonprofit Food Lifeline. But the feeling they are serving a greater need has kept them involved. "There's a lot of people who are hungry," he says.

They started nearly three years ago, but the Lynnwood family — parents Jim and Susan, and daughter Rachel, who's now entering her teen years — still spend one Wednesday evening in the warehouse each month, culling bad apples or bagging baby carrots, getting the donated produce ready for food-bank deliveries.

Their work is one of a dozen ways that families can help out with the community food safety net that can, as Lockhart says, "instill in our children that an act of giving or an act of kindness is something that is rewarding."

Another service project for Rachel Lockhart, creating a "birthday party in a bag" for a needy kid, meant that Jim drove his daughter to a food bank to deliver it, which made the connection with the conveyor belts of warehoused food.

"She said, wow, there's really a lot of people here," he recalls. "I think that was somewhat eye-opening." He hopes that the work will instill a volunteering ethic "that you keep up with your whole lifetime." Fitting it into a busy lifestyle, he says, makes the whole family realizes that it's important, "and it's just something we do now."

Many options

There are opportunities to grow vegetables at home or in a community garden, gather and deliver extra food, team up to harvest or glean produce, or help with the last stage of getting it to the people at food banks or meal programs. Every week, volunteers and agency staff fan out to grocery stores, restaurants, distributors and gardens to gather food to be delivered to those who might otherwise go without.

Two volunteer possibilities are happening this Saturday. A group of gardening enthusiasts is hosting "Spring Into Bed," a garden-building event that will create 10 gardens on public land for low-income Seattleites. They are using all-volunteer labor and materials. Also Saturday, local letter carriers are picking up bags of food that you leave by your mailbox for the annual Stamp Out Hunger drive, a collaboration between the National Association of Letter Carriers and Food Lifeline (which needs volunteers that day to help collect the food from post offices).

Schools are also pushing kids to help out, sometimes on school time as well as on their own. This winter, Bishop Blanchet High School freshmen were dispatched to two community gardens to help get the P-Patches ready for spring. At Ballard P-Patch, two dozen teens swarmed over the "tall boxes," raised beds used by gardeners with physical limitations. They dismantled the rotting wood boxes and moved the soil to ready the site for new boxes to be built.

Across town, the food-bank garden at St. James Annex in West Seattle was also the recipient of youthful energy in March when a group from SeattleWorks, which organizes volunteers in their 20s and 30s, spent a day cleaning it up and planting early spring vegetables.

Gleaning grows

Growing up on a commercial orchard near Selah, in Yakima County, gave Wallingford resident Barb Burrill an urge to care for fruit trees, so she turned her long-unused knowledge into volunteer work that she and her young son, Carter, can do together, which results in another harvest for hungry people.

"I started noticing fruit trees and would say, 'this is a great apple tree but the fruit just falls on the ground,' " says Burrill, who thought, "people are wanting more local food — here it is!" She saw apple trees on park land being overrun by blackberries, so she became a volunteer pruner for the Seattle Parks Department, and then began offering to tend neighbors' trees, in return for them donating the fruit to the social service organization Solid Ground.

Today there are three citywide programs tending trees, harvesting fruit and delivering it to food banks. Along with community benefits, the tended trees are healthier, the pest population is kept down and home fruit trees are turned from hassles to assets.

Such a project also can teach a lesson. Burrill saw a neglected fruit tree on the grounds of her son's school, John Stanford International, so she got permission to tend that as well, and it became a teaching moment for the young kids who, she says, "like to come over and ask 'what are you doing, why are you cutting the tree?' " (See cover photo.)

Her 8-year-old son, who cleans up the pruned wood and helps haul fruit into the food bank, understands that he's helping feed people in need, but Burrill says he also gets a glimpse into the life work of his grandfather, who died before Carter knew him.

Family traditions

Such connections are the driving factor behind a delivery job at a neighborhood P-Patch community garden. Elder gardener Michael Palmquist, 85, helps out in the food bank plot at Interbay P-Patch where his daughter, Mary Mills, has been a gardener for nearly 20 years. He used to be the driver for Lettuce Link, which organizes food bank deliveries from the P-Patches. But failing eyesight meant he no longer drives, and as a nurse, Mary works many Saturdays, so she couldn't do it. Enter grandson Alex, 17, a senior at Ballard High School, who is "taking over the driving" Saturdays throughout the gardening season to help his grandfather deliver food to a participating program.

"The place they delivered to last year was Fare Start, and Alex was really jazzed about that," recalls Mills. They'd take the produce into the Fare Start kitchen and Alex saw that "homeless people get job training, and there's a dorm for homeless older men. He thought that was really cool, a place for homeless older people to go."

Along with the satisfaction of helping Fare Start do its work, "it's kind of a fun bonding time for them, and my dad gets to do what he likes to do," Burrill says. "My son gets time with his grandpa, and he has a value for the P-Patch thing. He was raised there, from the time he was little, when we'd put his car seat on the ground."

Project this weekend

Like peas and P-Patches, more opportunities are sprouting up. The city of Seattle declared 2010 as "The Year of Urban Agriculture" and is scheduling a series of community-based events such as "Spring Into Bed." On the drawing board is the "Seattle Community Farm" at Rainier Vista in southeast Seattle, and many hands will be needed to build paths, dig gardens and plant the site. And fruit gleaning programs, which started three years ago in a handful of neighborhoods, are now networked citywide with a map of fruit trees in the program and numerous organizations organizing volunteers to tend the trees.

Whether there's an untended fruit tree in your backyard, or your family could use a project to fuel their community spirit, consider the opportunities to help feed hungry neighbors with fresh, local food. As Beth Burrill says, "people just need a little help to make the most of what they have."

Bill Thorness is a freelance garden writer in Seattle: bill@thorness.com.

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