JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Dave Thomas believes so strongly in the power of fresh vegetables that he is willing to provide the dirt and seeds to get them started.
Since 2013, his nonprofit Cornerstone of Hope has given away more than 1,000 raised beds, seeds and soil in Rock and Jefferson counties.
Thomas hopes that what home gardeners do not eat they will bring to food pantries, senior centers or hungry neighbors, the Janesville Gazette reported.
The intent of Produce for Pantries is to reduce the number of seniors and families who go hungry.
“Anyone can sign up for a raised bed, dirt and seeds,” Thomas said.
The first year, the bed, dirt and seeds are free. The second year, gardeners can request seeds and some plants. By the third year, most people are buying their own seeds.
The number of beds Cornerstone of Hope gives away depends on how much money it raises.
Ken Olander of Janesville is a good example of how the idea works.
In spring, Cornerstone of Hope gave Olander three 4-by-4-foot raised beds for the garden at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville.
They were in addition to three from the agency last year.
“It’s not a huge garden,” Olander said. “But you would be surprised at how much food you can make in a small garden.”
He shares the produce with Faith Lutheran’s day care children.
In addition, he takes vegetables to people in need who come to ECHO.
“I’m just a small player,” Olander said. “But many small donations like ours add up to a big plus for the community.”
That’s exactly what Thomas counts on.
In spring, he started hundreds of tomato and pepper plants and plenty of onions and leeks to give away.
Thomas knows that many home gardeners have more than they can use, and he encourages them to plant an extra row for others.
“It’s all about supplying people with food,” Thomas said. “If everyone takes it to someone who needs it, then it is not just going to waste on the ground.”
In addition, Thomas raises vegetables in three gardens.
His son, Evan, and a volunteer plant, weed, water and harvest as the season progresses.
Last year, Thomas estimates Cornerstone of Hope and gardeners who got their start because of the agency donated more than 16,000 pounds of produce to area food pantries.
“It means a lot to our participants to be able to receive fresh produce during summer and early fall,” Jessica Locher of ECHO said. “Mostly we have canned vegetables. But it is nice to have fresh produce without all the added sodium and preservatives.”
In a peak year, when weather conditions were ideal, Cornerstone of Hope donated about 20,000 pounds.
“But it’s not about how many pounds we produce,” Thomas said, “It’s about getting the produce to where it needs to go. We don’t look at it as a failure if we have fewer pounds.”
In a year without a pandemic, he presents classes on how to grow plants, when to harvest and how to preserve food. He also has worked with school systems to set up garden beds to teach about nutrition and to provide produce to kids.
Donations from individuals, churches and businesses fund Cornerstone of Hope, which has three employees, including Thomas.
“This year, things are tight,” Thomas said, because of the pandemic’s hard-hitting economic impact.
In 2012, Thomas took part in a conversation about food deserts in Janesville and realized there was a need for fresh produce.
“We took a year to study if the community could support such an effort,” Thomas said. “We found out no one was doing what we do.”
Thomas is a natural to lead a group that gives away thousands of seed packets annually.
He has been raising his own vegetables for 40 years.
His interest began as a college student in 1970 while he attended the University of Akron in Ohio.
“We were talking with some old-timers in the hills of Appalachia,” Thomas recalled. “They were saying that green beans don’t taste the way they used to.”
One showed up at his door with a mason jar of old-time green-bean seeds. Eventually, Thomas collected more heritage seeds.
“We drove around the hills of West Virginia and southern Ohio collecting different varieties of beans,” Thomas said.
He worked with a contact at the University of Illinois to collect the seeds, which went to museums, cultural centers and heritage gardens.
Today, Thomas knows which vegetables to plant in August. He understands that people either love or hate cilantro. And he realizes that gardening feeds the soul as well as the body.
“I have to enjoy what I do a great deal or I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I find gardening very relaxing. It gives me a lot of time to think.”
It also is a way to give back.
“I saw a need,” Thomas explained. “What kind of a person would I be if I saw a problem I could fix, and I didn’t fix it? I have the ability and the knowledge. Why not help people? That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”