Back in 2000, the Daily Herald started a unique program that urged backyard gardeners to "plant a row for the hungry" and donate their surplus vegetables to area food pantries.
This Giving Garden campaign -- in which the company partnered with area food pantries and tracked the amount of vegetables that gardeners donated -- continued through 2006.
More than 10 years later, the idea has taken root. Gardeners throughout the Northwest suburbs are doing more than growing a row for the hungry. They are dedicating entire gardens to feeding hungry families -- and food pantries are grateful.
Take the Schaumburg Township Food Pantry in Hoffman Estates. One of the first things families notice when they arrive is the display of fresh vegetables in baskets right inside the door.
"They're a very hot item," says Amy Fillmore, who works in welfare services for the township. "They go out as fast as they come in. We're always needing more."
Luckily, the food pantry -- which serves more than 700 families per month -- has lots of gardeners supplying them with fresh produce.
One of their regulars is Steve Larson of Schaumburg. He's a retired customer service specialist with United Airlines, who brings in vegetables nearly every day to the food pantry.
Larson not only grows them in his own backyard garden, but he coordinates the garden ministry at the Covenant Church of Schaumburg -- where they grow as many as 175 tomato plants for the hungry -- and he participates with the Schaumburg Community Garden Club.
"It's just a joy to do it," Larson says. "There's definitely a need, and we are blessed that we can supply (families) with what we have."
Both groups keep tallies of their produce at the township. Between the two, they have contributed nearly 3,000 pounds of vegetables this summer, and they're still harvesting.
In fact, Covenant Church members are nearing their goal of raising 2,000 pounds of vegetables per summer, which fits with their name. They call themselves the One Ton Club.
Other gardeners working to provide fresh vegetables are the Hoffman Estates Garden Club; Boy Scout Troop 392, sponsored by Our Saviour's United Methodist Church in Schaumburg; St. Hubert School in Hoffman Estates; as well as students at Hoover and Nathan Hale schools in Schaumburg and Mead Junior High in Elk Grove Village.
Officials with the Wheeling Township food pantry receive regular donations from schools, churches and even libraries, says Julie Villarreal, general assistance director for the township. In 2011, they began tracking the number of times gardeners dropped off produce, and that number approaches 1,200 visits as of this summer.
"Clients love having the fresh produce," Villarreal says. "It is such a welcome addition to the nonperishables from the food pantry. Families appreciate it because fresh produce is often expensive on their limited budgets."
Villarreal points to the Viatorian Community as their top producer. The religious order began a garden ministry on the grounds of its province center in Arlington Heights five years ago, specifically to feed hungry families, and since that time have donated nearly 5,000 pounds of vegetables.
The township also receives produce from London Middle School in Wheeling, St. Alphonsus Liguori Church and Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, both in Prospect Heights, Southminster Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, and many individual gardeners, including Lisa Croneberg and Ron Killian, who operate their Fenceless Urban Farm in Arlington Heights.
Palatine Township Supervisor Sharon Langlotz-Johnson reports a similar story, with the 350 families who visit the food pantry every month being able to select from a variety of fresh vegetables, thanks to a host of community gardeners.
She says their collective efforts go beyond growing food for Palatine Township families. The nutritious benefits, she says, are simply empowering.
"It grows families, confidence, and self-reliance," Langlotz-Johnson says. "If we are able to assist even one person moving forward, imagine what the person's future will be and their generations to come."