Community Donation Gardening Toolkit
This Community Donation Gardening Toolkit is an online resource for community gardeners who are sharing or plan to share produce with neighborhood and community partners to address food insecurity in their local communities.
A community donation garden is a community garden that intends for the produce grown to be consumed by members of the community who are experiencing food insecurity.
This toolkit is intended to be an online resource for existing community gardens seeking to donate produce. Gardeners interested in starting a new community garden should additionally consult other resources. We hope the toolkit will be useful for others too, including:
- Home gardeners, farmers, or other local producers interested in food donation
- Neighborhoods members and community organizations
- Food recovery organizations
- Food pantries and other food recipient agencies
- Local food practitioners and organizations
Access the contents of the toolkit by section using the tabs below.
You may also download free PDF versions of each section at these links:
Developing strong partnerships with community members and food recipient agencies is a key first step in donation gardening. When considering where to donate, your community may offer a wide range of opportunities. The three recommendations below are not meant to be sequential. Rather, they provide an iterative process of partnership development.
Recommendation #1: Consider possible models for the garden.
Understanding the various options for growing and distributing the produce will be an important consideration for the garden. A community donation garden may provide a direct model of access, in which the garden is located in the neighborhood where the food or gardening resources will be distributed, often either on site or nearby the garden.
The community members who receive the food or gardening resources in this model may have different levels of involvement and participation. They may direct the garden, participate in gardening, have direct access to the garden and gardening resources, utilize the garden as a learning space, coordinate distributions, receive food distributions directly from the garden, or participate in the garden in other ways.
Another model of donation gardening may be more indirect. Food may be grown at one site and then transported for delivery, often to a local food recipient agency such as a food pantry. Some community donation gardens may opt for a hybrid of the direct and indirect models, or they may allocate a portion of the garden or the produce grown for donation purposes.
Recommendation #2: Create a list of potential partners.
For gardens potentially interested in a direct model of donation gardening, begin by reaching out to neighborhood organizations and residents. For gardens opting for an indirect or hybrid model of donation gardening, recipient sites may include food pantries, food banks, meal programs, soup kitchens, senior centers, schools, daycare and after school centers, faith-based organizations, drop-off sites collecting food for delivery to pantries, and more.
If you are unsure where to donate in your community, begin by having a conversation among the garden volunteers and neighborhood members, contact your County Extension office, and reach out to your network of community members to discuss ideas. Other community gardening organizations may recommend potential partners, and may share other important insights and information.
Growing Together Iowa, an ISU Extension and Outreach program working with community gardens to foster donation gardening across the state, maintains a directory of past garden sites and recipient agencies, which may be a helpful resource. Additionally, national food donation databases may help you identify nearby food recipient agencies. See below for more information.
Recommendation #3: Develop partnerships.
Set up an in-person meeting and/or phone call between the garden coordinators and potential partners. Make sure to include the gardeners who will primarily be responsible for produce donation. When you have conversations with the neighborhood organizations, members and/or food recipient agencies in your community, be prepared to ask questions about the partner’s needs, interests, and expectations.
Example questions to consider include:
- What are the partner’s needs related to food and/or gardening?
- What interests or potential interest does the partner have in this community garden?
- Is the partner interested in receiving fresh produce from this community garden?
- How else might they be interested in partnering?
- Beyond gardening and produce donation, are there other pressing needs in the community that are important to consider?
- What is the partner’s experience with fresh produce and produce donations?
- What concerns might they have in partnering with the garden, or in receiving produce from the garden?
- How can the garden best meet the needs and expectations of the community members?
- What would the partner like the gardeners to know or understand about it (and for agencies, about the community members it serves)?
- What would the gardeners like the partner to know or understand about the garden?
- What level of involvement and partnership are the neighborhood members/agencies and the garden volunteers interested in? Produce donation only, or other opportunities for collaboration?
- Are the garden volunteers able to meet the needs of this partnership?
- What concerns or challenges might the garden volunteers have?
Before committing to a partnership, it is also important to discuss the logistics of produce donation and delivery. See the “What to Grow” section of the toolkit. Once you have developed a partnership, plan to regularly check-in with your partners and recipient agencies. Plan one or more conversations mid-growing season and at the end of the growing season.
Finally, remember that your partners, whether neighborhood members or food recipient agencies, are often constrained for resources, including time, financial, and other resources. It is important to develop partnerships that serve their needs. But you also need to be realistic about the level of commitment you can expect from garden volunteers.
Getting started – Resources from ISU Extension and Outreach
The map below provides names and locations of community partner sites that received fresh produce donations through Growing Together Iowa during the previous growing season. These partner sites provided emergency food access for individuals with low income in various settings including food pantries, meal sites, and care centers.
Map credit: Bailey Hansen.
MEANS is an online website that helps connect growers with organizations receiving and distributing food.
Ample Harvest is an online directory of food banks and pantries. Note that the directory only contains food recipient agencies that have registered with Ample Harvest.
Food recovery. For more information on food recovery, see Additional Resources in the Gleaning section of the toolkit.
Before deciding what to plant in your donation garden, we recommend reaching out to the neighborhood organizations, food pantries, and other food recipient agencies in your community where you intend to donate. Learning about the needs and capacities of the donation site and donation recipients will guide your selection, as you also take into account the skills, resources, and environmental factors specific to your garden.
To assist in these efforts, in 2015, Iowa State University SNAP-Ed staff contacted food bank leadership across the state to determine priorities for produce donation. This resulted in a publication titled Top 13 vegetables to donate to food pantries (HORT 3068). The goal was to identify fruits and vegetables that can be grown in Iowa that are in high demand at pantries.
This list also takes into account ease of transport, storage, and preparation. Though this list is a good starting place, it does not replace the need to talk first with neighborhood organizations, local food pantries, and other food recipient agencies about the items most in demand, and assess conditions at your garden.
Recommendation #1: Coordinate with the garden’s recipient partners.
Develop a partnership with the applicable neighborhood organizations and food recipient agencies before planning the garden. See the Where to Donate section of the toolkit. When you have conversations with the organizations and agencies in your community, be prepared to ask questions, such as:
- What fruits and vegetables are needed, but rarely donated? Perhaps the food pantry already receives generous donations of tomatoes, but would like additional greens.
- What types of vegetables do community members like to eat? What culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables are needed? Take into consideration who might be accessing the food donation site and what fresh fruits and vegetables they would appreciate by talking with the donation site.
- Are there any fruits and vegetables for which the community or the agency already receives enough or too much?
Ask questions related to the logistics of produce drop-off, storage, and distribution, including:
- If your garden is directly distributing produce to neighborhood members, how, when, and where should the distribution take place?
- For donations to food recipient agencies, how often does the agency distribute food?
- For donations to meal sites, schools, and other programs with food preparation on-site, how often are the meals served?
- Does the agency pick up deliveries or work with other partners to coordinate pick up?
- Is the agency in need of refrigeration, especially if distributions are less frequent?
- If the agency has refrigeration, is enough space is available? If not, consider produce options that have longer shelf lives.
- Are there any other potential challenges for the agency or for direct recipients who are receiving the fresh produce?
- Are there other logistics, guidelines, and procedures that the garden volunteers should be aware of, for example, packaging preferences, delivery sites, key contact person?
- What information about the produce does the recipient or agency partner need from the gardeners, such as labeling of produce items being donated, preparation information on how to cook with or use the produce, etc.?
- What other information might be helpful to the recipient or agency partner?
- When can garden volunteers harvest and deliver? How often, which days of the week, and what times of day? Before committing to a delivery time, make sure to consider when garden volunteers will be available for harvesting, packing, and delivering the produce.
Recommendation #2: Discuss available resources at the garden.
Discuss which factors at the garden will guide your crop selection. This includes environmental and human resources.
What are your human resources?
- What partners in your community could contribute to your success? Partners can be a strong source of audience insight, expertise, volunteer time, equipment and funding.
- Consider whether your planned growing system is compatible with the physical capabilities of garden volunteers. For example, consider whether raised beds or vertical gardening methods would be preferable to systems that require extensive kneeling.
- Consider which knowledges and experience garden volunteers already have, and what they like to grow. Would the gardeners like to experiment with new vegetables and growing techniques?
- Some fruits and vegetables require more frequent harvesting than others, especially during certain times of the season. Consider volunteer availability throughout the growing season.
- Enjoyment and learning opportunities can be important parts of sustaining a garden. Develop an understanding of what the garden volunteers like to grow, but remember to prioritize the people who are accessing the food and what their food preferences are.
What tools and additional resources do you have available?
- For instance, do you already have nearby access to water? Do you have tools to easily harvest certain vegetables? Do you have indoor space to start seeds, or will you direct seed and/or transplant?
- Are grants or other funding sources available to acquire additional resources?
What are the environmental factors at the garden?
- Consider climate, soil types, pest pressures, water availability and other factors.
- Explore sustainable practices, including crop rotations. Rotating crops helps enhance yields and keep pest pressures at bay. Consult past years’ records, and maintain ongoing records with crop rotation information.
Getting started – Resources from ISU Extension and Outreach
Top 13 vegetables to donate to food pantries. This publication provides an overview of 13 vegetable crops, along with tips for growing, harvesting, and cleaning. In addition, the article includes links to ISU Extension and Outreach publications on home vegetable gardening and guidance for specific crops. While this publication provides advice on potential crops to grow and donate, we always recommend communicating first with your local food recipient agencies. Because extension has not yet published recommendations on culturally appropriate or ethnic crops, please consult external resources, such as the ethnic crops resource from the USDA Agricultural Library (also listed below).
Where to find seeds and starters
Planting a home vegetable garden. Provides basic how-to information, including seedbed preparation, seed selection and sowing, and using transplants. Chart gives planting guidelines for 37 vegetables.
Planting and harvest times for garden vegetables. This guide can help northern, southern, and central Iowa vegetable growers schedule the planting of gardens so space may be used efficiently. Includes a staggered planting and harvest chart for crops grown April through October. Detailed planting directions are given for more than 25 common garden crops, such as radishes, lettuces, onions, peas, tomatoes, kale, peppers, squash, melons, and cucumbers.
Garden tips: Guidelines to seasonal chores. Learn to properly maintain your garden all year round. Includes information on what steps to take with your lawn, fruits, trees and shrubs, flowers, herbs, houseplants, and/or vegetables in the early and late part of each season.
Crop Rotation in the Vegetable Garden. This publication contains basic recommendations for maintaining crop rotations. For more in depth information on why crop rotations are important, as well as strategies for crop rotations and other organic practices, see Crop Rotations, Composting and Cover Crops for Organic Vegetable Production.
Community garden guide: Vegetable garden planning and development. From USDA NRCS.
Ethnic crops. Links to publications provided by the USDA National Agricultural Library. Includes information related to some specific Asian and Hispanic crops and their traditional uses.
Vegetable gardening: A beginner’s guide. From North Carolina State University Extension.
Growing and donating fresh produce requires extra attention surrounding issues of food safety. Iowa State University SNAP-Ed staff and food safety experts developed the following list of basic food safety recommendations for donation gardens. We encourage you to print the donation garden food safety infographic (see below) to display at your garden.
Food safety practices are extensive, so we provide below an additional set of tools, webinars, and publications developed by ISU Extension and Outreach programs. These resources can guide your food safety procedures in the garden and on the way to the food pantry. We hope these tools are beneficial; please contact us if you would like to see additional resources developed or added to the list.
Keep pets and wild animals away from plot.
Use municipal (drinking) water to rinse and remove visible dirt from produce.
Harvest produce into properly cleaned and sanitized bins using clean utensils.
Wash hands before and after handling produce.
Compost or discard bruised or damaged produce.
Transport produce to food pantry in a clean, covered vehicle.
Getting started – Resources from ISU Extension and Outreach
Take a look at this video on donation gardening food safety practices.
Food Security in Iowa: Best Practices for Food Safety. 2016 ISU Extension and Outreach Master Gardener webinar from Dr. Shannon Coleman and Susan DeBlieck on food safety practices for donation gardening.
Growing and Harvesting Vegetables. 2017 ISU Extension and Outreach Master Gardener webinar excerpt from Dr. Shannon Coleman. Contains background information on food safety, as well as recommended practices for garden vegetables pre-harvest, during harvest, and post-harvest.
Growing Together: Food Safety in Donation Gardens. Infographic (at right) developed by Dr. Shannon Coleman overviewing essential food safety practices for donation gardens. The infographic can be downloaded in PDF format and printed for display at your community donation garden, or for distribution to donation gardening participants. Click the image at right to be taken to the poster in the ISU Extension Store.
Sometimes, farmers produce more than they can harvest, or bring more to the farmers market than they are able to sell. Emerging networks of community members and local organizations across Iowa are working together to recover or “glean” food from farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and institutions–food that would not otherwise be sold or eaten. The food gets distributed through food assistance sites and agencies, such as area food pantries.
Several Iowa organizations are actively working on food recovery and distribution (see additional resources below). In the coming months, ISU Extension and Outreach is developing gleaning resources for this toolkit. Resources under construction include a gleaning training for volunteers, resources for farmers, and more; please check back for updates.
- Growing Together Gleaning Videos (3-part training)
- Supplemental materials for video training (PDF)
- Table-to-Table in Johnson County, supported in part through ISU Extension & Outreach SNAP-Ed, is one example of a large-scale food recovery operation working to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables available at food pantries.
- Eat Greater Des Moines, Feed Iowa First (in Cedar Rapids), Quad Cities Food Rescue Partnership, and Up from the Earth (in Sioux City) are examples of other regional organizations in Iowa working on gleaning and food recovery.
- Food Recovery Network chapters on college campuses include Iowa State University, Drake University (NextCourse Food Recovery), Simpson College, Cornell College, and Grinnell College.
- USDA Gleaning Toolkit
More than one in 10 Iowans experienced food insecurity annually between 2013 and 2015 (USDA ERS, 2016). ISU Extension and Outreach partners with communities and organizations working to provide Iowans with low food access and income with increased access to nutritious, locally produced food, and greater voice and participation in our state’s community food systems.
Communities and organizations across our state are developing programs and tools to improve community food security, food access, and food justice through farmers markets, community donation gardens, food donation, food literacy programs, food pantries, and additional community food programs.
Community food security (as defined by Bradley & Herrera, 2016) refers to efforts to provide for the nutritional needs of community members experiencing food insecurity through community-based initiatives, emphasizing small-scale local food production. These efforts typically focus on establishing fairness and equity in the local food system, with attention to increasing access to fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods. Community food security also seeks to place recipients of the food in positions of decision-making, governance, and ownership in their community food systems.
Food access refers to the ability of people to obtain fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods through market and non-market sources. Non-market sources may include home production; food sharing; community gardens; community, school, and other meal programs; and emergency food sources. Challenges to food access at an individual level may include inadequate income, health problems and disability, limited time and resources to acquire and prepare healthy foods, lack of access to a kitchen and food preparation equipment, and lack of land and other resources to grow/raise food. At a community-level challenges may include an absence of nearby retailers offering nutritious food (“food deserts”), poor public transportation and infrastructure, limited or no school meal programs (especially in the summer), and lack of community food spaces that include farm land, community gardens, farmers markets, edible landscapes, shared kitchens, community meal sites, food pantries, etc.
Household food insecurity (as defined by the USDA) is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. [/read]
Household food security (as defined by the USDA) means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Food justice, sovereignty, and equity are concepts that focus on efforts to define food as a basic human right. Programs and movements based on these concepts focus their efforts on building more inclusive agricultural and food systems, emphasizing marginalized communities’ voices at local, national, and global levels of policy and practice. For full definitions and more information about these terms, see the ISU Extension and Outreach Local Foods webpage on Inequities in the Food System.
Food insecurity – Causes
What contributes to food insecurity in Iowa and throughout the United States? For people experiencing food insecurity, there are a host of challenges to accessing fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious fresh food, especially locally produced food. Factors to consider include:
Supply and affordability
- Despite the growing number of local producers, Iowa still has relatively low acreage in fruits and vegetables to meet the consumption needs of Iowans.
- Iowa ranks 50th in fruit and vegetable consumption in the country. Iowans, even those who have plenty of calories to eat, may not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables that are in low demand.
- Communities in both rural and urban areas may lack sources of affordable, nutritious food. For instance, a gas station may be the only food market within a close distance to many people, and may not have many fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate options.
Policies and infrastructure
- Food assistance dollars often do not provide enough funding to afford fresh, nutritious food to feed a family for an entire month.
- Food pantries, meal programs, and other community resources for food access do not exist in many Iowa communities. Where these options are available, they cannot always meet the needs of the community. Many food pantries can provide only very limited fresh food options due either to available supply or limited capacity to store items that require refrigeration. Where these options are available, other challenges include only being open a few times per week or month, limits on how much food they can provide each family, and restrictions on how frequently people can come. School meal programs, a common source of food for children, are cut off during the summer in some Iowa communities.
- Low community participation in local/regional food and agricultural systems leaves a lot of untapped potential to develop community food security programs that could increase access to local foods.
- Iowans facing low employment prospects or only having access to low-wage and/or unreliable employment often struggle to make ends meet. Earning enough income to afford housing, other bills, and food is a challenge for many Iowans in rural and urban areas across the state.
- Having enough time to grow and/or prepare nutritious food can be a challenge with work, family, and other demands.
- Difficulty accessing sources of nutritious food also happens due to gaps in public and community infrastructure, including:
- lack of personal/public transportation
- insufficient pedestrian infrastructure
- distance to markets or other food access sites
- lack of accessible public garden space
- lack of access to land for gardens (e.g., housing rentals may not have garden space or permit gardening)
- Racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and other social disparities in the food system generate uneven access to food and uneven participation in the food system.
- Food insecure community members typically have little say in planning and decision making in the food system; yet we could learn much from our fellow community members who know about these challenges firsthand!
Developing holistic community food security programs
ISU Extension and Outreach supports statewide and community programs to foster greater health and nutrition for all Iowans. We also strive to assist Iowans in developing practices that bring together food and community more holistically, attending to factors such as:
Food culture. What people like to grow, cook, and eat; family food traditions; community food events like potlucks; sharing recipes.
Food emotions. How food makes people feel, either growing it, sharing it, eating it. It’s the myriad ways that food affects people emotionally and viscerally.
Food health. How food production and consumption nourishes mind, body, and planet. This includes how foods positively or negatively impact individual health, the health of others, and even the health of everything around us like the water, soils, butterflies, other animals, and the environment.
Food access and ownership. How people access healthy and culturally appropriate food. This can include buying, growing, and sharing food. It also includes how much time people have to devote to accessing/preparing food; access and ownership of required resources such as land, seeds, and supplies; transportation and other logistics issues. A lot of people take food access for granted, assuming that it’s easy for everyone to shop at the grocery store or access a food pantry. But for many Iowans, access remains a big challenge.
Food decisions. How much say, or influence, all fellow community members have in the programs and policies that affect agriculture and food. Maybe you’ve decided to start a community garden or you sit on a board for a food pantry, or participate in other programs and policies. Vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities typically have little say over food systems governance and decisions.
Community food system. The big picture of one’s community. It’s the ways that a community comes together to promote all of the above aspects of food for all members of the community.
ISU Extension and Outreach Programs, Partnerships and Resources
Growing Together Iowa is a partnership of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Master Gardener volunteers, and ISU Research and Demonstration Farms. Together, we support donation gardens throughout the state. The project is growing food for local pantries to help lower-income Iowans access fresh fruits and vegetables.
In 2016, the effort provided more than 64,000 pounds of produce (that’s more than 192,000 servings of fruits and vegetables!) to local food pantries and food access sites. To learn more, search for updates from ISU Extension and Outreach Master Gardeners, look for new articles on our blog, and watch a video on Growing Together. To learn more about the project’s approach to food insecurity, check out the following resources:
- Food insecurity in Iowa is the Master Gardener 2017 Winter Webcast Series. While this three-part webinar is specific to the Growing Together project, it contains general information about food insecurity in Iowa, including presentations on hunger and donation to food banks and pantries.
- Part III of the webcast contains two presentations — the first on 4-H partnership in community donation gardening projects, and a second on community food security in Iowa.
- Beginning in 2017, Growing Together Iowa has partnered with extension staff in other states who are starting affiliate community donation gardening programs. University of Wisconsin Extension has created this Tool Box for Master Gardener volunteers.
The Community Food Systems Program is housed within the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Community and Economic Development and FFED Programs. This program partners with communities across the state to develop and design their local and regional food systems, and several communities have identified food security projects as part of their community food systems development.
Double Up Food Bucks in Iowa is an incentive program that provides matching funds for SNAP dollars spent at participating farmers markets and farm stands across the state. The program supports a $1:$1 match for up to $10 per market day spent on Iowa-grown fruits and vegetables. After a successful pilot year in 2016, the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative now accepts applications from farmers market and farm stand participants across the state.
FoodCorps Iowa partners with FFED. Its service members work with high-need schools on gardening, cooking and tasting healthy food; improving school meals; and encouraging a school-wide culture of health. FoodCorps Iowa teaches students about food security and equity, while also developing these practices hands-on at schools and through partnerships with organizations like Matthew 25.
Inequities in the Food System. FFED provides extensive up-to-date information and resources on efforts to address food system inequities.
Additional Resources by Topic
SNAP and locally grown produce. The ability of local foods purchases using SNAP dollars is easier than ever. The resources below provide information on SNAP participation for farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture).
- SNAP EBT at Farmers Markets. Does your local farmers market accept SNAP EBT? Check out the Iowa Department of Human Services website for up-to-date information. A list of participating farmers markets as of April 2016 can be found here. Additionally, the Double Up Food Bucks program is being piloted at a limited number of farmers markets and farm stands in Iowa.
- SNAP Guide for Farmers Markets. From the national Farmers Market Coalition. Brings together state and national resources on accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly food stamps) at farmers markets.
- CSA SNAP Participation. Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, CSAs may apply as a SNAP eligible retailer (retailers must meet one of two eligibility requirements; CSAs typically meet the second eligibility requirement, (B): More than one-half (50%) of the total dollar amount of all retail sales (food, nonfood, gas and services) sold in the store must be from the sale of eligible staple foods). Current regulations allow CSAs to accept SNAP payment no more than 14 days in advance. While this regulation may not meet upfront operating capital needs for many CSA business models, those CSAs interested in acquiring SNAP retailer eligibility can apply through the USDA FNS. See this USDA FNS publication for more information, including contact information, or contact the Local Foods Program.
Social inequities and food insecurity
- Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System. This report from the Center for Social Inclusion identifies and describes factors impacting food system equity such as social structure, access, agricultural and land ownership systems, labor and affordability. The report includes a series of questions to help identify entry points for addressing equity issues.
- Center for Environmental Farming Systems Committee on Racial Equity in the Food System. CEFS is a partnership between North Carolina A&T University and North Carolina State University that addresses issues of food access, and includes the goal of racial equity in the food system. The committee webpage provides resources on racism and food inequity.
- Wholesome Wave. Reports and impact data from a series of national food access pilot projects including SNAP Double Value Coupons, Fruit and Vegetable “Prescription” programs, Healthy Food Commerce investments, and more.
- Healthy Corner Stores Network. Resources for improving healthy food access to under-served communities through corner stores and convenience stores.
- Hunger in the Heartland. Documentary on community strategies for alleviating hunger and improving food access in Iowa.
- Lettuce Learn. Academic journal article about community donation gardening and food insecurity written by graduate students from ISU Sustainable Agriculture Student Association. The student association has been collaborating with Food at First in Ames, Iowa, since 2012, and began donation gardening in 2013.
Bradley, Katharine and Hank Herrera. “Decolonizing Food Justice: Naming, Resisting, and Researching Colonizing Forces in the Movement.” Antipode. 48(1), pp. 97-114.
USDA ERS. Definition of Food Security.