Saturday, May 15, 2021

From Heart to Table: Think We, not Me is making an edible difference for residents in need, while offering gardening experience and expertise to volunteers

The sun on your back. The feel of rich earth between your fingers. The sense of anticipation, and accomplishment, that comes from spending time outside in a garden.

It’s a feeling Think We, not Me, a local organization dedicated to growing produce to donate to area food banks, soup kitchens, meal programs, and YMCA food centers, wants to share with homeowners and aspiring gardeners.

The organization began with area residents Norm Knaub and Bill Zimmer taking extra produce from their gardens to local food banks. Think We, not Me grew out of their work, and since 2019 the group has donated more than 40,000 pounds of produce to feed those in need.

While the organization has been successful by any measure, they hope to do more to meet the growing need for fresh, healthy food.

This year, they are introducing the Free Gift Garden project, which will provide up to 20 small-parcel growers with everything needed to plant, cultivate, and harvest a garden on their property. In return for gifting the group half of the harvest, the organization will till ground, provide seeds or seedlings, and gardening expertise. Participants are welcome to use the plot to grow their own produce as well.

“The key is the community,” says Ken Lipson, a Boalsburg resident and one of the organization’s founders.

Lipson’s donated acreage is one of the group’s largest growing parcels.

“I love that aspect of it. If we can get people started – till, give them plants, all the help and information they need – we’ll do all that, then only ask that half of what grows goes to the food bank,” he says.

While the urge to plant is strong during the early sunny days of spring, Zimmer says May is the time to plant. 

“There’s still time for a garden,” he says. “I’ve found if you plant in April, you get so many cold days, [sprouting plants] just don’t tolerate it.”

Bill Zimmer carries seedlings he is cultivating. (Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert)

Planting seeds

The seeds of the idea for the organization were planted somewhere in Bhutan, when Lipson was hiking with Sangay Dhendup, a Buddhist tour guide on one of many trips to the region. During the long hikes, conversation flowed, and he told his guide how he was bothered more and more with the “me, me, me” attitude he felt was pervasive in American society and culture. It was an issue Lipson had been wrestling with for years, and as a result, had purchased a domain name with the words “we not me.” He was unsure what exactly he would do with it, but knew it was an idea he wanted to pursue. 

Lipson had already founded the Nepal School Uniform Program in Pokhara, Nepal, raising money to provide 800 children with the uniforms required to attend school. 

“Their whole lives were changed because now they could go to school,” he says. “It cost $20 for a uniform, and they couldn’t afford that.”

Once home, Lipson, with little gardening knowledge, posted a message on social media offering six of his acres and a tractor to anyone interested in growing food for local food banks. A friend saw the post and introduced him to Zimmer and Knaub. Together, in 2018 they created what became the Think We, not Me food growing program. They partnered with Lipson’s longtime friend Jim Boyce, who maintains the farming equipment as well as managing website development, and Karen Robinson, a volunteer who became program administrator, volunteer coordinator, and primary liaison with food distribution partners for distribution and pickup.

Robinson, a retired corporate project manager for Verizon, got involved in 2019 after being introduced to the organization at a party at Lipson’s house. She says she happily put in more than 50 hours a week during the past two years, building databases and infrastructure to help with communicating with volunteers and partner organizations, and recent corporate sponsors as the organization grows.

“I’m making it so I don’t have to do this much in the future,” she says with a laugh.

“As a fairly recent retiree, it gives me a lot to do, and I feel really good about pulling people together,” she adds. “There’s a real sense of community, of responsibility, as well as a sense of accomplishment when you realize you’re going full circle from the very start to getting it on the table.”

“As a fairly recent retiree, it gives me a lot to do, and I feel really good about pulling people together,” Karen Robinson says of her work with the program. (Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert)

As a result, in 2019 the organization was able to partner with Penn State University, AmeriCorps, and a variety of other volunteer groups to harvest 25,000 pounds of fruit and produce, half of which was provided by PSU. 

Then COVID-19 shut down all the growing and volunteer activities from Penn State, a major setback for the group. To counter the loss, Lipson and Zimmer expanded their field sizes to increase yields. The State College Friends Meeting offered the use of the Keller Street Community Garden, and together with donations from Common Ground Organic Farm they were able to provide 15,000 pounds of fruit and produce to those in need.

Volunteer harvest

With five principal growing properties and more than 19 distribution centers throughout the county, the program relies heavily on its volunteers. Many joined last year, when staying home instead of traveling because the pandemic left people with more opportunity to do volunteer work. There is no specific time commitment required; there are one-time opportunities in addition to ongoing schedules.

Volunteers of all ages work at a wide range of tasks geared to their abilities and interests, working shifts of no more than two hours at a time once or twice a week, depending on where they are in the growing/harvesting season. While volunteer opportunities are available for those as young as 14 (with parental supervision), many are retirees. An added bonus: During harvest, volunteers take home a bag of produce.

“There’s really something for all ages and all physical capabilities,” Robinson says. “Some of it is helping clear fields, or putting down fabric, but we also have people who take little stools out to the field while they harvest green beans.”

In addition to field work, Think We, not Me needs volunteer drivers to help meet the challenge of getting food out to some of the distribution centers.

Tess Kutasz Christensen is a neighbor of Lipson’s who noticed his sign advertising the organization during a walk through the area last year. Intrigued, she Googled it and found a post on Nextdoor (a social media app). A self-described city girl with “not even a tiny bit” of gardening experience, she volunteered and soon found herself preparing fields and planting corn.

“I wanted to get involved with the community, especially during COVID, to make a real, tangible, edible difference,” she says. “I was just floored by the amount of education I got from the leaders.” 

Food insecurity is a serious issue here, according to Allayn Beck, executive director of the State College Area Food Bank. 

The donations of tomatoes, melons, berries, broccoli, carrots, beans, spinach, and more helps meet their needs.

“We are very thankful; we just love being able to collaborate with them. It’s nice people are willing to step up and make sure our clients have fresh, locally grown produce throughout the summer,” she says.

Think We, not Me is very specific in what it grows, with Zimmer – who is Master Gardener trained – leading the planning in what is planted when, where, and how to maintain the crops for optimum harvest. Among the most requested items: sweet corn and apples.

While apples are still in short supply for the group, this year, through the gift of corporate sponsorship providing an acre for growing sweet corn, Zimmer says the harvest could be record-setting. 

“Things stand to really take off with that sponsor picking up a substantial amount of cost,” he says. “The challenge is getting volunteers to pick it.”

Christensen says she’ll definitely be back. 

“They just need a lot of hands to make it work,” she says. “And it’s so much fun to see it grown and harvested and stacked up. The growing and harvesting are really fascinating.”

HOW TO HELP

Many hands make light work and Think We, not Me could use as many hands as possible. 

Volunteers can help with the organization’s mission to provide fruit and produce to meet the need in Centre County by coming out even once or choosing on ongoing schedule. Shifts are typically one to two hours twice a week, and activities are geared to individual physical abilities and interests.

Volunteers are needed in these areas:

Field Prep: Spring and fall, removing plant debris, tilling fields, laying down or picking up weed-control fabric, applying soil amendments, raking or moving rocks and other materials.

Planting: Staggered plantings in spring and late summer ensure a variety of crops. Teams of four to eight people plant seeds and seedlings for two-hour periods.

Cultivation: During growing season, volunteers weed, loosen soil, and apply amendments and fertilizer.

Harvesting: Picking corn, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, melons, and more. Some crops require bending or working on hands and knees and volunteers are always matched to activity according to physical ability.

Distribution: Drivers are needed to pick up and deliver goods to drop-off locations. Drivers must be at least 25 years old, have their own vehicle and insurance, and be capable of lifting boxes up to 50 pounds. Need is generally two hours a week, July through September.

Administrative: Assist the program coordinator with volunteer and delivery coordination, Free Garden Project coordination, and updating the website. One to two hours a week average, phone and computer skills needed.

For more information, visit thinkwenotme.org.

THE FREE GIFT GARDEN PROJECT

Think you’d dig helping out? The Free Gift Garden project is looking for interested partners who have at least a 1,000-square-foot space with enough sun to ensure healthy growth.

A representative from Think We, not Me will come out to assess the area offered. Of the growing parcel, half is dedicated to food to donate and half is yours for personal use. You choose what you want to grow, and the group will tell you when to grow in order for them to predict what and when they can donate to distribution centers.

The group will till the land for you, and provide you with seeds and/or seedlings and gardening expertise, if needed. In return, you donate half of the yield to Think We, not Me, which provides it to Centre County food banks and other nonprofits and church groups that provide food or meals to the food insecure.

Questions? Contact Bill Zimmer at [email protected], or visit thinkwenotme.org.

Robin Crawford is a freelance writer in State College.