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Volunteer Spotlight: Volunteer Gardeners Needed for Food Donation Program

  • Volunteers help tend the fields at the Willing Hands garden in East Thetford. The nonprofit organization is looking for more volunteers to assist with the garden, which has doubled in size. (Frank Easton photograph)

  • Volunteers help tend the fields at the Willing Hands garden in East Thetford. The nonprofit organization is looking for more volunteers to assist with the garden, which has doubled in size. (Frank Easton photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, July 13, 2018

East Thetford — It is said that many hands make light work. One Upper Valley program that has harnessed that philosophy to reduce food waste and feed the hungry needs more volunteer hands than ever this year.

“This year, we’re going to double the amount we’re growing, because we’ve doubled the size of the garden,” said Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of Willing Hands. The nonprofit organization provides fresh produce and perishable goods each week to more than 57 Upper Valley organizations that help people facing food insecurity.

“The food bank system is built upon warehouse dry goods, because there is not an efficient way to handle highly perishable foods like fruits and vegetables. Willing Hands fills that gap,” Zoerheide said. Last year, from all sources, the organization distributed more than 500,000 pounds of fresh produce, he said.

Willing Hands takes a three-pronged approach to securing produce. The organization collects fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be thrown away at area stores. It also uses volunteers to glean produce that would not otherwise be picked from local fields — oftentimes because it was left behind after the main harvest or because it has small imperfections. In addition, Willing Hands maintains a garden in partnership with Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, where the organization grows produce specifically to be donated.

This year, Willing Hands doubled the size of the garden, and is in need of volunteers to help tend and harvest the additional space. Last year, the garden produced 16,000 pounds of food and Zoerheide expects to double that number this year. The garden has already produced 5,000 pounds of produce this year, he said.

Because Willing Hands provides produce year-round — not just during the growing season — the garden provides a chance to control what foods are planted in order to have produce that can be enjoyed no matter the season.

“The garden is a very important part of what we do,” Zoerheide said.

Willing Hands has had about 150 volunteers in past years to help garden and glean produce. The organization decided to expand the growing space, having faith that the Upper Valley community would come together to help make the expansion a success and provide more produce to food-insecure residents of the region.

“We had more volunteers, so we thought, ‘Let’s do more. Let’s really engage more people,’ ” Zoerheide said. “We know we need the food.”

Volunteers are needed to help work in the garden from May through September, especially once produce becomes ready to harvest, which is beginning to happen now as summer squash and cucumbers ripen.

Regular gardening sessions take place on Tuesdays from 9-11 a.m.; Thursdays from 5-7 p.m.; and Saturdays from 9-11 a.m. Volunteers can register and sign a waiver online at www.willinghands.org and then drop in at the time that suits them. There is no minimum time commitment and no experience is necessary since other gardeners will be on-site. The garden is located on Pavillion Road, about a half-mile south of the Cedar Circle Farm stand in East Thetford.

People who volunteer with Willing Hands can know that they are directly helping improve the health of people in the Upper Valley who otherwise might not have access to fresh produce, Zoerheide said.

“Many, if not most, of the organizations that we work with don’t have another source of perishable fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said.

For more information on volunteering with Willing Hands visit the website, call 802-698-0265 or email volunteer@willinghands.org.