The tomatoes and zucchini in the garden are calling to me. I just can’t let them go bad. I have this almost obsessive need not to let food go to waste. I have Googled zucchini recipes, made zucchini Parmesan, a salad of zucchini ribbons, and chocolate zucchini bread twice in one week just to make sure none of it goes bad. I’ve turned to Facebook friends to beg for ideas of what to do with the 40 cucumbers my husband harvested last week. (Refrigerator pickles and a chilled cucumber soup were among the suggestions.) We’ve delivered goods to all our neighbors and used tomatoes as barter. And, clearly, we are not alone in this need to spread the bounty of our garden. In the past few months, many new endeavors have been born locally, giving us more options than ever for what to do with our extra produce.

Maureen Durkin grew tired of driving the streets of Ventura and seeing trees laden with fruit that was going to waste. So she actually did something about it — she started the Ventura Produce Cooperative. She modeled her co-op after similar programs in Merced and in L.A. The Ventura group gathers twice a month, under a shaded tent in the cul-de-sac near Durkin’s house in East Ventura, and those who want to come bring extra produce, flowers or herbs from their gardens to swap with others. When I stopped by with a brown bag full of navel oranges and a bunch of fresh-cut lemon basil, the bounty laid out on the tables was awe-inspiring. When I left, my bag was bulging with lemons, a dark purple eggplant, some plums and some sweet little mandarin oranges. While we were all there for the purposes of swapping, many lingered for a while, ate some fruit and shared recipes. This seemingly casual chit-chat was actually one of Durkin’s goals, part of her larger desire to bring people together and build a sense
of community.

Over the summer, the co-op has grown through word of mouth and evolved to a mailing list of around 40 people. Looking ahead, Durkin envisions a larger production. People will drop off their produce, volunteers will repackage it, and either people will come back to pick up their goodies, or volunteers will actually deliver it. She also hopes to grow her project to the extent that, after the exchanging, there will be plenty left over to donate to the local food bank, FOOD Share.

“I want to get more kids involved in gardening and want them to see that food comes from plants, not from a package in the grocery store,” Durkin says.

Another new local resource is FOOD Share’s five-month-old Garden Share program — a community-based effort that is engaging churches, neighborhoods and individuals to grow food for the hungry in our county. This new program is a natural step, says Bonnie Weigel, CEO of FOOD Share.

“In Ventura County, our greatest resource is the agricultural base, so we decided to turn to that to meet our community’s hunger needs,” she says.

The pilot project that evolved from this idea is the Community Roots Garden at North Oxnard Methodist Church, a true example, Weigel explains, “of a faith-based community and a neighborhood coming together to grow food.” Church members, neighbors and other volunteers gathered together for a work day back in May, planting corn, tomatoes, greens, cucumbers and countless other forms of produce on a one-acre plot. As the garden has flourished, the food has been used for community dinners, and has gone to feed church members and neighbors. As more food is produced, they plan to give the excess back to FOOD Share to be distributed to the larger community. Currently, there are 12 gardens similar to this one, some at churches and some in residential backyards.

The Garden Share program also challenges all people to “grow a row” in their own yards, and donate the extra produce to feed the hungry. And for those who don’t have a garden but would like to start one, it can even help someone get started. FOOD Share partners with a local volunteer group, the Grow Food Party Crew, that will come to your home, design your garden and build it with your help. Through Garden Share, locals can also volunteer and help glean extra produce from citrus trees and gardens, either in their own neighborhoods or at local fields.

As Garden Share continues to grow, Weigel says, “I would like to pull up the lawns at local housing projects to grow food, as these are the people who most need the fresh, healthy produce.”

Another way in which locals are helping Food Share feed the hungry is by donating land.  Most recently, a private donor is allowing the non profit to grow food on ten acres of their land in Somis. Growers and volunteers will work together to grow produce, all of which will go directly to Food Share. The County of Ventura has also provided five acres of land, upon which the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) is currently growing food to feed seniors all over the county including those that

Food Share serves. Similarly, both Ventura High School and City Corps have been growing produce in their gardens to donate as well.

For those whose personalities are best suited to a Craigslist approach to things, there is VeggieTrader.com. This concept is the brainchild of Rob Anderson of Portland, Ore. He and his wife kept noticing unused produce falling from trees and going to waste. 

“There is a huge disconnect between this fruit you see going bad on the sidewalk, and the expensive, often imported, produce you see in the grocery store,” Anderson says.

Their site, which currently has 7,000 registered users, allows people to post about extra produce they have available for sharing, swapping or even selling. Members can log in, search by zip code, and connect with others in the community who have produce to spare. While there isn’t a huge Ventura County contingent thus far, it has great potential for local gardeners, people looking to eat locally, and for those wanting to connect with their communities.

At the core, the main goal of each of these programs is the same: find a good home for unused produce. Yet what they are accomplishing in the end is something much bigger. They are bringing people together and helping them connect with their neighborhoods and communities. They are helping people start their own gardens and giving people better access to fresh, local food. And they are helping to feed some of the 41,000 people who are hungry in Ventura County every month.   

For more information about the co-op, visit www.venturaproducecooperative.blogspot.com. For more information about Veggie Trader, visit www.veggietrader.com. To volunteer with the Garden Share program, call Meg at Food Share at 983-7100.

allisoncos@gmail.com