CHAMPAIGN — The rows of tomatoes, squash, asparagus and raspberries in Lisa Braddock's organic garden could feed a large extended family, and she's always wanted to share that bounty with people who could use it.
Braddock figures other gardeners would, too, so she's come up with a way to make it easy.
Her new website, http://www.sunshineharvestsharing.wordpress.com, links backyard gardeners with area food pantries and soup kitchens so excess produce can get where it's needed, quickly.
The website includes a directory with contact information for a dozen local agencies, a schedule for which days they'll take donations and a list of what produce they will accept, "so people don't have to call around and do all this fact-finding themselves," said Braddock, facilitator for the C-U Fit Families project. It also has tips for keeping produce fresh in the process.
Braddock said she never knew where to take the fruits, herbs and vegetables that her family couldn't eat or preserve.
"Otherwise it just turns into compost, and I'd rather make people smile than make compost," she said.
She also felt uncomfortable bringing a few tomatoes to a soup kitchen that might be feeding 100-plus people.
Then she talked to folks at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana and other anti-hunger agencies, who assured her there was a need for her service. Even though the food bank supplies fresh produce to food pantries and kitchens, "there's never enough. Because it is perishable, there's a constant need," she said.
The food bank accepts produce directly from gardeners, but it often sits on the shelf for a day or two until it's distributed to a pantry or soup kitchen, "and sometimes that's a little bit too long," said Cheryl Precious, director of development for the food bank. Braddock's system removes the food bank as middle man, Precious said.
"Connecting home growers directly to pantries is a great way to make sure the food doesn't spoil," Precious said.
A national website called Ample Harvest also connects growers to food pantries in their area but relies on agencies themselves to update their information, which doesn't always happen, Precious said. Braddock will collect that information for her site.
The Sunshine Harvest website also shows when agencies accept food and when they distribute it, so gardeners can time their donations appropriately, Precious said.
A grower with two boxes of ripe squash can look through the directory and find out which pantries are going to be giving out food in the next couple of days, she said.
Dawn Blackman, volunteer steward of the community gardens at Champaign's Stratton Elementary School, called the effort a "fabulous" idea.
Blackman leads the Culture Club youth group at the nearby Church of the Brethren, which uses vegetables from the club's garden plot to make soup for the TIMES Center in downtown Champaign.
The church also uses some of the produce for its weekly food pantry and the food baskets it prepares for families at Empty Tomb. And Blackman delivers produce to seniors living at the Washington Square apartment complex in downtown Champaign.
The community garden also includes plots tended by individual families, neighborhood groups and a University of Illinois urban planning students, all of whom sometimes donate excess produce. In all, the community garden generated about 600 pounds of produce last year for the needy. The community garden is planning a fundraiser on Sept. 3 to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Blackman is hoping Braddock's efforts will pay off for her church's food pantry and other agencies.
"This is a great idea," she said. "I know that sometimes people plow stuff under."
Champaign County's master gardeners have grown produce for the hungry for years, but Braddock hopes to reach other gardeners through this effort and perhaps inspire entire neighborhoods or other groups to get involved.
Even people who don't have a garden can volunteer to help weed, mulch or harvest at a community garden to contribute to the effort, she said. Braddock also plans to donate strawberry and raspberry plants to Blackman's community garden.
"There's all kinds of ways that people can help," Braddock said.
She also has created a C-U Sunshine Harvest Sharing group on Facebook, and hopes to obtain a grant to produce a printed directory next year.
The project gives people a tangible way to provide food for the needy, said Braddock, who is putting together a similar effort in her hometown of Harrisburg, in southern Illinois, and in Moab, Utah, where she lived for several years.
It's also a great activity for parents who want to teach a new generation about growing food and responsibility to the community, Braddock said.
"I know I'm still waiting for my first ripe tomato from my garden, and I know how it feels when I get that. It's something that everybody appreciates. So being able to share that with other people, it's a nice human connection," she said.