Plant a Row for the Hungry

It was a cold night in Washington, D.C., and I was heading back to the hotel when a man approached me. He asked if I would give him some money so he could get something to eat. I'd read the signs: "Don't give money to panhandlers." So I shook my head and kept walking.
I wasn't prepared for a reply, but with resignation, he said, "I really am homeless and I really am hungry! You can come with me and watch me eat!" But I kept on walking.
The incident bothered me for the rest of the week. I had money in my pocket and it wouldn't have killed me to hand over a buck or two even if he had been lying. On a frigid, cold night, no less, I assumed the worst of a fellow human being.
Flying back to Anchorage, I couldn't help thinking of him. I tried to rationalize my failure to help by assuming government agencies, churches and charities were there to feed him. Besides, you're not supposed to give money to panhandlers.
Somewhere over Seattle, I started to write my weekly garden column for The Anchorage Daily News. Out of the blue, I came up with an idea. Bean's Cafe, the soup kitchen in Anchorage, feeds hundreds of hungry Alaskans every day. Why not try to get all my readers to plant one row in their gardens dedicated to Bean's? Dedicate a row and take it down to Bean's. Clean and simple.
We didn't keep records back then, but the idea began to take off. Folks would fax me or call when they took something in. Those who only grew flowers donated them. Food for the spirit. And salve for my conscience.
In 1995, the Garden Writers Association of America held their annual convention in Anchorage and after learning of Anchorage's program, Plant a Row for Bean's became Plant a Row For The Hungry. The original idea was to have every member of the Garden Writers Association of America write or talk about planting a row for the hungry sometime during the month of April.
As more and more people started working with the Plant a Row concept, new variations cropped up, if you will pardon the pun. Many companies gave free seed to customers and displayed the logo, which also appeared in national gardening publications.
Row markers with the Plant a Row logo were distributed to gardeners to set apart their "Row for the Hungry."
Garden editor Joan Jackson, backed by The San Jose Mercury News and California's nearly year-round growing season, raised more than 30,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables her first year, and showed GWAA how the program could really work.
Texas fruit farms donated food to their local food bank after being inspired by Plant a Row. Today the program continues to thrive and grow.
I am stunned that millions of Americans are threatened by hunger. If every gardener in America - and we're seventy million strong - plants one row for the hungry, we can make quite a dent in the number of neighbors who don't have enough to eat. Maybe then I will stop feeling guilty about abandoning a hungry man I could have helped.

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