PARIS — For the volunteers and recipients of the Plant a Row for the Hungry program, the sense of community involvement and interaction is palpable.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has been distributing vegetables for 12 years, initially to food pantries and senior lunches, and for the past five years, directly outside their Olson Road offices.

Every Thursday during the summer, members of the Extension’s master gardener program and other volunteers help put together donated food and vegetables picked from the nearby gardens. A line gradually forms, and at 6 p.m. people start filling the bags they’ve brought with them.

The program runs in each Extension office in the state, and can also be found across the nation. According to the Garden Writer’s Association, local gardeners have donated more than 14 million pounds of herbs and vegetables since Plant a Row began in 1995.

Barbara Murphy, Extension educator, said the program began after a member of the Garden Writer’s Association, a horticultural communications group that supports charitable and educational initiatives, was approached by a homeless person seeking food in Washington, D.C.

He returned to Alaska and began Grow a Row for Bean’s, through which people donated produce to Bean’s, a local diner, for distribution. The idea expanded to other locations. Murphy said the Maine version is undergoing a name change to Maine Harvest for Hunger.

“About one in five Maine families have food insecurity issues, which means they aren’t sure where their next meal is going to come from,” she said.

The recipients of the food include seniors on fixed incomes and people who have lost their jobs, Murphy said. Other gardens operate at a Rumford office, at Tri-County Mental Health Services in Oxford and at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Paris.

Many volunteers in the program are part of the Extension’s master gardener program, which requires 45 hours of classroom training over the winter and 40 hours of volunteer time during the summer.

The Paris Extension office has about three-quarters of an acre of gardens, including an on-site greenhouse. Members harvest greens, summer squash, zucchini, beans, blueberries and cantaloupe, among other produce. Local farmers and gardeners donate corn, apples and other produce not easily grown on the small parcel of land.

Becky Armstrong, a seasonal employee of the Extension and a member of the master gardener program, said it encourages a strong connection with the community. She noticed that most of the people who receive food realize the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables, and often maintained a garden of their own at one time.

“When you go to the grocery store and you’re on a fixed income, you have to make choices,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully, we can give them more choices and expand their choices, as well.”

Donna Snay of Paris said it can be expensive to buy produce at a store. She appreciates how the food offered by the Extension is fresher and more organic than other choices. She said a leg injury has hindered her ability to work, and the program helps her and others whose income is not as strong as it once was.

Snay said the program also offers a way to try new recipes suggested by the Extension and to meet other people.

“It’s kind of like a night out,” she said.

Mary Grover of Paris said she is able to maintain a small garden, but that the program helps her to collect fresh vegetables.

“I think the people who help us put in an awful lot of work,” she said.

Murphy said the weather this summer has boosted the agricultural output, making for a better growing season than the past two years. Last year, the Extension offices in the state donated 87,319 pounds of fresh produce. This year, the statewide goal is 125,000 pounds, with the Paris office aiming to hit 12,000 pounds. So far, it’s donated 7,000 pounds; the state total won’t be known until November.

Murphy said the Extension receives strong support from local gardeners and farmers, and provides a ready drop point for donations because it is open five days a week.

“It really is a community effort to pull this off,” she said. “It’s one model we’ve chosen to combat local hunger.”

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