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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

The power of food to transform: America's Grow-a-Row

The exchange of food across all the continents and oceans, and across millennia, has elevated the eating and drinking experience for virtually everyone on the planet.

Some might say that the ubiquity of globalized packaged food products - products manufactured to meet a profit margin and built for the convenience of consumers and all the players in the food chain - has somewhat diminished the eating experience and created health-related issues. There's some truth in that.

But that first exchange of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, onions, peanuts, cacao beans and kidney beans, crab apples and pineapples, coffee beans, peppers and pepper corns, and many other basic foods not known in large parts of the world until several hundred years ago completely transformed cuisines and raised expectations of how enjoyable eating and drinking can be.

Not to say there isn't room for improvement in how we are enjoying some of these now staple foods, and where we are sourcing them. We are missing something by eating so many potato chips, frozen mashed potatoes, and pre-cooked french fries instead of the unadulterated spud that initially arrived from Peru.There's a lot of tomato going into pizza sauce and ketchup that could be enjoyed freshly sliced or quartered. And, it was odd to me living in Nebraska a few years back that my fresh corn was from Florida. Wouldn't the best-tasting (and more eco-friendly) corn come from a field not more than an hour away?

You don't have to stray too far from home to appreciate how the exchange of food can be transformative too. Fresher. Local. Healthier.

The other day I talked with Chip Paillex, President and Founder of America's Grow-A-Row, a non-profit organization that, with the help of thousands of volunteers who plant and harvest fruits and veggies, donates fresh produce to those in need through food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other hunger relief groups. What started in 2002 as a daddy-daughter project on a 30 ft by 30 ft plot of land in rural New Jersey has grown into a multi-farm organization that distributed 6 million servings of fresh produce across seven states last year.

There's no doubt that Chip's experience with America's Grow-A-Row over the past 18 years has been personally transformative. It began as a weekend project. Now it occupies all his time. One of Chip's goals at the outset was to get his four-year old daughter to want to eat fresh, healthy food by planting and harvesting herself. In the process Chip too has adopted healthier eating habits. And the more he gave away of the overabundance of produce from his oversized plot, first to co-workers and neighbors, then to those who really need much more fresh food in their diet but who don't have access to fresh produce, the clearer it became to him that he had stumbled on a calling to serve in this way.

What also became clear to Chip is that many people want to be more actively involved in addressing hunger and malnourishment. This is why America's Grow-a-Row now has nine thousand volunteers. It's transformative for everyone involved.

This is particularly true for volunteers, many of them kids, who come from urban areas with limited access to healthy food. Many of them have never been to a working farm. Imagine tugging a potato out of the ground for the first time. And how gratifying it feels to know that you nurtured it all the way through. How proud you would be hauling home a crate of, say, zucchini squash, green beans, cauliflower, and nectarines at the end of the day.

The volunteers who come to give back keep coming back and spreading the word because they are themselves growing this fresh, healthy food that goes into their local communities. They are getting their hands dirty too. They too are witnessing the growth from seed to fruit. They are sharing in the experience; learning how to "grow a row," and probably teaching a thing or two as well.

What really makes America's Grow-a-Row work, it seems to me, is this valuable exchange built around food for people who share the same patch of Earth. A willingness to work, learn, and serve others flows into the farms, and fresh, healthier food flows to where it's really needed. Goodwill flows in both directions.

There is more talk of food sovereignty and food security, these days. Down-to-earth, grass roots organizations like America's Grow-a-Row can play a needed role in acting on these lofty goals.

My conversation with Chip Paillex will be on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode dropping on July 1st.

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