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Home gardeners can help the hungry by donating some of their harvest

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Gardening’s popularity has surged during the coronavirus pandemic; it provides exercise, outdoor time, emotional well-being, and wholesome produce. Home gardening also can provide hunger relief to others during a time of rising food insecurity.

Many home gardeners are donating portions of their freshly picked harvests to food banks, meal programs, and shelters.

Some are cultivating “giving gardens’’ set aside for donations. These plots are weighted toward long-term storage crops like carrots and winter squash or nutrient-dense potatoes and beans.

“When gardeners are able to donate a steady supply of fresh produce, it can make a big difference for neighbors in need,’’ said Christie Kane, a spokeswoman for Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, Vt.

The nation’s overburdened food pantries generally have access only to canned fruits and vegetables, she said.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, an estimated 37.2 million people or 11.1 percent of all US households lacked reliable access to enough food for a healthy standard of living, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Now joblessness and lost wages due to the COVID-19 outbreak are forcing millions more to choose between food and other essentials.

“Stay-at-home orders have been a boon for gardening since they give people added hours to go out and work in relative safety,’’ said Gary Oppenheimer, founder and executive director of AmpleHarvest.org, an organization that helps gardeners find food pantries eager to obtain freshly picked crops for their clients.

“Millions more are planting, a great many more are enjoying healthier foods, and still more are contributing,’’ Oppenheimer said.

Make safety a priority when harvesting homegrown produce, especially if you’re sharing it with others, he said.

“Call the local food pantry ahead of time to schedule your drop. Wear gloves. Step back 6 feet from anyone when delivering food. Add nutrition to the community, but do it in such a way that people don’t get harmed in the process,’’ Oppenheimer said.

Be choosy about where you make your contributions, he said: “Verify that they’re legitimate, that they’re nonprofit, and give away their food for free.’’

Look to churches, municipalities, or groups like AmpleHarvest.org for lists of recognized food programs.

Expanding the growing seasons will stretch your giving. Start earlier in the spring and continue production well into early winter using lights, row covers, and other shelters to protect plants from frost.

Other yield-boosting tips:

— Practice succession gardening. Plant new crops immediately where others have been harvested.

— Keep on picking. Harvesting crops like green beans promptly enables them to flower and produce still more beans, said C.L. Fornari, a writer, radio host, and garden consultant from Sandwich. “If left to sit on the plants for more than a few days, these plants will stop germinating and producing,’’ Fornari said.

— Use small spaces, too, like patio and windowsills, for container gardens, or grow vertical with vine crops.

— Share your space or time. “Team up with a neighbor or family member that may have space but no time to garden,’’ said Melinda Myers, a horticulturist and television/radio host from Mukwonago, Wis.

“Gardening is good for our minds, body, and spirits, and so is sharing,’’ Myers said. “As more families have been able to spend more time together, this is another activity that provides valuable lessons to children.’’

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