On an overcast July morning, Peggi Stone walks through the gate of Garden Isaiah at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs to survey the summer bounty.
Asparagus stalks poke up below delicate ferns. Bees dance around the big orange blooms of squash vines. The waxy green flesh of hot peppers hints that they are ready to be picked.
Stone has a lot of vegetables to harvest before the afternoon sun gets too hot.
“It all goes to the Community Action Center in Sandy Springs,” she said.
Garden Isaiah was started in 2005 as a way for temple members to help feed the hungry. Stone said last year the garden yielded 1,400 pounds of food, the largest harvest to date.
This year they are on track to donate even more, collecting about 30 pounds of okra, sweet potatoes, squash, beans and cucumbers each week.
“We try to get people out here multiple times a week,” she said. “You can harvest just about every day in the summer.”
Around metro Atlanta, the popularity of community gardening is growing, with many gardens maintaining waiting lists of people hoping to secure a patch of dirt where they can grow their own food.
As a side benefit of this local food movement, charities are receiving donations of fresh, healthy produce that they can distribute to people who need it.
Many community gardens reserve space to grow food for area charities and food banks.
Kevin McCauley said of the 32 plots in the community garden at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve, three are now dedicated to growing food to donate to Crossroads Kitchen in Midtown.
McCauley said since 2007, they have regularly taken produce from the charity beds as well as extra crops from the other gardeners to the soup kitchen.
“Quite often people will grow more things than they can actually use,” McCauley said. “Vegetables tend to ripen all around the same time. We encourage people to donate them if they’re not going to be able to use them or give to friends or family.”
McCauley said while the produce isn’t enough to meet all of the kitchen’s needs, it does provide them a supplement of fresh, organic vegetables.
“They’ve been very good about taking whatever we have and working it into their menu,” McCauley said. “It’s stuff they wouldn’t otherwise have. These kitchens get a lot of donations that are usually cans. There’s very little fresh vegetables.”
McCauley said the community gardeners enjoy knowing they are helping people in their community through their work.
“People like to garden and want to grow something for themselves. But it’s also nice to know you can help somebody else at the same time,” he said. “And you’re kind of tied to someone that’s in your neighborhood or in your community. It makes it much more tangible.”
Malachi’s Storehouse at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody provides emergency groceries once a week to about 100 low income families.
For the past three years, the Dunwoody Community Garden has donated fresh vegetables to Malachi’s Storehouse, said the organization’s co-director Kathy Malcolm Hall.
“We are one of the only food pantries locally that gives away fresh produce,” Hall said. “They really have helped us feed our clients nutritious organic produce. It’s been so great.”
Hall said because fresh produce is often expensive and spoils quickly, low income families will use their limited resources to buy cheaper, processed foods.
“It helps us provide things we can really feel good about giving and that are healthier. It breaks down that cycle of people in poverty being so sick with diabetes and other nutrition-related health problems,” she said.
Hall said Malachi’s Storehouse mostly serves people from Dunwoody, Norcross, Chamblee and Sandy Springs. But some will travel from farther away if they can, she said.
“We get a lot of people who ride the bus because we give out healthier food,” Hall said.
“It’s first come, first serve – people start getting there at 8:30 in the morning. I would say the first 30 to 35 families get fresh produce. They tell us every week how thankful they are for the fresh produce. The fact that they show up early every week shows that it’s important to them.”
Hall said with the help of the Dunwoody community gardeners, Malachi’s Storehouse now has its own vegetable garden that it uses to provide food for clients.
The two groups will now part ways so the Dunwoody Community Garden can begin providing produce for other charities.
“They essentially gave us our own garden and held our hand for two years until it was really up and running,” Hall said. “They’ve raised money alongside of us and helped us resource our own garden which has been such an amazing gift. We’re able to feed people really nutritious food.”
Angie Clawson, public relations manager for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said since 1996, the organization has operated a program called “Plant a Row for the Hungry.”
“What the plant a row for the hungry entails is us asking gardeners — backyard gardeners, community gardeners, master gardeners — anyone who is growing food for themselves to plant at least one extra row to donate,” Clawson said.
In 2011, more than 106,000 pounds of fresh produce from gardeners and commercial farmers was donated to local organizations through the program, Clawson said.
“We know produce goes bad quickly,” Clawson said. “This way they get fresh produce that can get to people in need in their community directly.”