WEST JORDAN — For as long as he can remember, Jeffrey Hansen has enjoyed working in his parents' backyard garden.
As a little boy, he'd wait for his father, Steve, to come home from work so they could tend the garden together. Hansen learned early on the names of plants, how to distinguish young fruit and vegetable plants from weeds and tricks to help the garden grow.
"I just like being outside. There's something about getting your hands dirty. I like eating what I grow," said Hansen, 16.
This summer, Hansen will be paying special attention to his family's garden because he is taking part in Utahns Against Hunger's Grow-A-Row initiative. The program encourages urban farmers and backyard gardeners to share the bounty at local food pantries to help needy families.
Hansen has also organized more than 20 neighbors to take part in the effort, which he is doing as his Eagle Scout project.
Liz Elmore, an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), who is heading up the project, said national studies show low-income neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores, which means it is more difficult for residents to obtain fresh food.
"At the height of growing season, when your garden is producing more food than you can eat, you can donate the excess to those without access to fresh produce. This is a real, tangible way to fight hunger in our community,” said Elmore.
Grow-A-Row links gardens to tables. Participants are asked to register for the program at www.uah.org/projects-initiatives/grow-a-row , where they will also find locations of nearby food pantries where they can donate fresh fruit and vegetables.
Elmore said UAH encourages gardeners to register so the Salt Lake nonprofit organization can track total donations. If people sign up to help, it is more likely that they will follow through, she said.
Hansen asked his neighbors to grow winter squash because it is highly nutritious and it has a longer shelf life than other types of produce.
One of Hansen's neighbors, Eilene Soelberg, usually grows tomatoes and herbs in her garden, which she says is smaller than many of her neighbors.
But after Hansen asked her help with his Eagle Scout project, she decided to add another crop this summer.
“I thought that was easy enough to do, poke a few seeds in the ground. He even offered to provide the seeds, but I already had some,” she said.
Grow-A-Row provides a practical solution for gardeners who end up with more produce than they need, Soelberg.
“I think a lot of the problem is getting the produce from people who have it in an abundance to where it needs to go,” she said.
Another neighbor, Ross Baum, said he appreciates that Hansen's project will take months to come to fruition.
“He didn’t rush into this. He has to wait through the summer to collect the crops. I think he’s put a lot of thought into this. He’s not in a hurry to get it done," said Baum, who is Hansen's former Boy Scout leader.
Picking this particular project also means that Hansen won't be able to get his driver's license until after the growing season. The Hansens, who have six children, require their sons to complete their Eagle Scout projects before they can get their licenses.
Hansen said he decided to take part in Grow-A-Row because it allows him to put his passion for gardening to work to help other people.
According to Utahns Against Hunger, one in seven Utah households struggles to afford the food they need.
Hansen said he is aware of those numbers and he suspects that some of his classmates at West Jordan High School experience food insecurity.
"The more I've been in school, I've seen kids who I'm guessing their parents have a hard time coming up with enough money for food. I always feel so bad for people who are going hungry. Grow-A-Row seemed like a good way to help."
The Hansens have dedicated a spot in the garden to Grow-A-Row but they are also planting squash in flower beds in different corners of their yard, said DeAnn Hansen, Jeffrey's mother.
"We're still looking for spots to plant a few more," she said.
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