Scott Terry learned compassion for the hungry from a childhood of hunger. Now he gardens an urban plot to feed others.
I know how it feels to be hungry. Thirty-five years ago, on days when breakfast didn’t exist for me as a kid, I often walked to school in the morning and ate my small sack lunch on the way. In college, I often survived on fifty cent bags of day-old bagels—a single bag per day. I learned how to can jam during those years, at a time when I was poor but blackberries on the outskirts of town were free for the picking. Home canned blackberry jam transformed day-old bagels into something more palatable.
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness—a religion that tends to attract followers from the lower socio-economic strata. In economic status rankings of religions in the United States, Witnesses rank near the bottom, but I wouldn’t have known that as a child. It didn’t seem odd to me that most of the people in my church appeared to be poor, like me.
In hindsight, I now realize that my family wasn’t destitute. Today, I know that my parents just made bad choices. There were times when we ate surplus food from the USDA, but my stepmother was able to buy a new car every few years. My dad always owned a horse or two. They bought a new house when I was seven, and then quietly accepted blocks of processed cheese, bottles of pale yellow corn syrup, and packages of freeze-dried powdered eggs from the government. Accepting USDA assistance was an embarrassing secret in my house. My parents didn’t want to be recognized as poor, fearing judgment or scorn for their decisions.
Every month, my parents gave money to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What they wouldn’t have done was to give money to the poor. I learned this on the day when we passed a Salvation Army volunteer outside of the Salt Lake City Mall. We were shopping there, when I first saw him. I was thirteen. It was a cold, winter afternoon, and I watched the elderly gentleman ring his bell, drawing attention to his kettle and soliciting donations. My parents ignored him.
Moments later, in the privacy of our car, I asked my dad, “What does he do with the money?”
“It goes to the Salvation Army,” my father explained. “Some of it goes to poor people.”
“Would we give money to them?” I inquired.
“Of course not,” he answered. “They’re owned by Catholics. We would never give money to Catholics.”
I don’t remember ever doing anything in my childhood to help the needy, but I do remember being hungry. A funny thing about childhood hunger is that it lingers in your memory for a lifetime. It is intrusive. For example, even as an adult today, I get irritated when my refrigerator isn’t full. To avoid that irritation, I tend to have more food in my home that I can eat. I waste more than I should, but that’s okay because much of it comes from my backyard. After surviving a childhood that was dominated by hunger, I now have a mini farm in my urban backyard. In California, where I live, it’s not complicated to grow vegetables. I give away much of what I grow. My partner, Curtis, says that my need to give food to strangers is a result of the hunger in my childhood. He’s probably right.
A few years ago I added chickens to my garden. We live right in the middle of town, an unusual place to keep chickens, but I like chickens. I like eggs. I like sharing eggs with my neighbors. I’m not poor these days and I certainly do not need to raise my own chickens, but I bought three laying hens a while ago and gave them names. People say you shouldn’t name farm animals, but I disagree. Trust me on this. Chickens do not know that humans like to eat them. They really don’t. My chickens have a very pleasant life roaming free in my backyard, and it means absolutely nothing to them if I bring out a frying pan and suggest that one is destined to end up there if she doesn’t supply me with eggs. A chicken can’t tell the difference between a frying pan and a dirty sock, and they don’t know that I have given them names.
My Barred Rock hen is known as Ms. Barred Rock. The Silver Laced Wyandotte is Dot. The brown chicken’s name was Brown Chicken. Last year, we ate Brown Chicken. Some people are going to get all uppity over that, but Brown Chicken had a very good life. She spent several years in my backyard, doing what chickens do, but when she stopped laying eggs, Brown Chicken found herself in a pot of chicken and dumplings.
I am a member of my neighborhood gardening club. Many of us grow large gardens, and several years ago, some members suggested that we might give our surplus vegetables to the food bank in town. After some research, we learned that many food banks won’t accept donations of home-grown produce. Larger organizations, in particular, won’t accept anything that hasn’t been preserved in a can or a box, but our local food bank, The Davis Street Family Resource Center, wasn’t one of them. Davis Street serves thousands of needy families and they were more than willing to take the excess zucchini, oranges, and other edibles off of our hands. One woman in our gardening club collected small donations on her front porch and then drove the larger collection to Davis Street once a week. Other members began asking the homeowners of neglected fruit trees in our neighborhood for permission to pick the unwanted fruit for the hungry. Mary Jo, one of the older members of the group, offered to climb my massive orange tree to harvest the hard-to-reach oranges at the top. Now, I won’t tell you how old Mary Jo is, but she is at the age when people should not be climbing orange trees, even if they are collecting food for the needy. I was inspired by her.
The thought of giving excess home-grown food to the needy had not previously occurred to me. I got really fired up over the realization that Davis Street would take it, which was about the same time that I was looking for my first investment property to purchase. The real estate market had collapsed, and with the drastically lower prices, I imagined that I might buy a property that could function as a farm. A small farm, in the middle of town.
Within months, a neglected half acre property hit the market. It was a short sale containing two very small and neglected rental units. Much of the land was occupied by mature but neglected fig, apple, plum, quince, avocado, and lemon trees. And weeds. There were tons of weeds. After several hours of mathematical computations, it was clear to me that the rent from tenants would more than cover the mortgage, taxes, and insurance on the property. The rental income would allow me to own a small urban farm, at little cost to me. Real estate prices had dropped that much.
After six months of negotiations with the bank, I became the proud owner of that property. On my first weekend of ownership, while plowing weeds, I accidentally bumped my mini-tractor into an apple tree and knocked it to the ground. It was a very old tree and probably didn’t have much life left anyway, but still, I had inadvertently killed one of my fruit trees. Note to self: do not run into trees with the tractor.
One old lemon tree, under the weight of lemons, had collapsed onto the roof of the rental house. After pruning it back, I found myself staring at several hundred pounds of lemons that I didn’t know what to do with. I couldn’t imagine giving them to the Davis Street Family Resource Center. Hungry people don’t want lemons. What are needy families going to do with lemons? But I couldn’t bear to throw them in the compost bin, so I drove them over to the food bank for my very first delivery from my urban farm. I could just as well have brought them gold. Lemons are treasure, I learned. Something as simple and inexpensive as a lemon is an extravagance to people who can’t afford to purchase them.
Surprisingly, after growing up, I had forgotten some of the details of poverty. I had forgotten how meaningful an insignificant gift of food can be. On that day when I gave away lemons, I thought about being hungry as a child and my history with a religion that had failed to preach compassion. It occurred to me that generosity shouldn’t be acquired or constrained by religion. I realized that giving food to the needy made me feel good.
Since then, with the help of volunteers from the local 4-H club and my gardening group, the farm has produced an amazing amount of food. In 2011, we donated a little over 1500 lbs of fresh fruit and vegetables to Davis Street. In 2012, the second year, we donated over 3300 lbs. We will certainly exceed two tons of donations in 2013. The harvest is varied, depending on the season, but I tend to focus on edibles that aren’t too complicated or time consuming to harvest. Strawberries and green beans are easy to grow at home, but they take too much time to pick in large quantities. So at the farm, we grow tomatoes, summer and winter squash, melons, corn, chard, kale, and cauliflower, among other things.
Rarely do I meet the recipients of my produce, but I know that many are elderly. When I see young children leave Davis Street with a sack of my tomatoes or squash, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder if they are needy because their parents make bad decisions, like mine. None of that matters. It just makes me feel good to know that I’ve contributed to easing someone’s hunger. I’ve also learned that a lack of food isn’t always about money. Sometimes it’s about access. Not everyone has the ability to drive to a fruit stand on the outskirts of town. Some inner-city neighborhoods have nothing more than small convenience stores to choose from.
The typical food program in this country struggles to give fresh produce to the people they serve. That’s unfortunate. There are so many ways we can help them, in addition to our time or money. Most towns in America have organizations that provide food or meals for the hungry. Many of us can be part of the solution. Contrary to what I learned in the church of my childhood, generosity shouldn’t be restricted by religious dogma. And it isn’t necessary to judge those who are in need of assistance. Sometimes, people are just hungry.
How you can help feed hungry people:
- If you grow food at home, donate the excess.
- When you see a clearly unappreciated fruit tree in your neighborhood, loaded with fruit that is falling to the ground, ask the owner if you can pick it for the needy. There are plenty of people for whom a ripe orange, apple, or even a lemon, is appreciated and hard to come by.
- If your local food bank won’t accept your donations, a soup kitchen probably will. There are even some religious organizations that collect food for the hungry, and don’t require church membership to be a recipient.
- If you need help organizing or harvesting, ask your local 4-H, Girl Scout, or Boy Scout organizations for volunteers. Many of those groups are looking for ways to fulfill community service hours.
Read more on Mentoring and Volunteering.
Image credits: Feature image by woodleywonderworks/Flickr; coop image courtesy of the author