CORVALLIS - When you plant your vegetable garden this spring, the Oregon Master Gardeners would like you to plant an extra row of peas, carrots or tomatoes for Oregon's hungry.

Fresh produce is one of the most-needed and hardest-to-provide items for the one in eight Oregonians who last year needed emergency food through the Oregon Food Bank.

This year, the Master Gardener Association, whose members volunteer their expertise through the Oregon State University Extension Service, has teamed with the Oregon Food Bank to launch the first statewide "Grow an Extra Row" program.

It works like this.

Home gardeners will plant a little extra fresh produce in their gardens this year. At harvest time, they will contact their local county extension agent for the name of the nearest emergency food distributor, food kitchen or other outlet for feeding the hungry.

"We'll serve as an information dissemination point, directing people where to take their produce," said Ann Marie VanDerZanden, the OSU leader for the Master Gardener Program.

Started by garden writers and suggested in "Organic Garden" magazine, the idea of solving hunger at the garden-roots level has sprouted nationally as the "Plant a Row" program.

In Oregon, Jackson and Josephine counties have had a similar program for a number of years, with great success, VanDerZanden said.

Now organizers VanDerZanden of the OSU Extension Service and Melinda Bernert, president of the Oregon Master Gardener Association, would like to transplant that success to other areas of Oregon.

That help is invaluable to making the program work, said Amy Stork, the spokeswoman for the Oregon Food Bank in Portland.

The food bank is the hub of a network of 650 agencies in Oregon and in Clark County, Wash., that distribute the food to those who need it. Last year the non-profit, community-based organization collected and distributed emergency foodstuffs to 385,000 Oregonians and served 2.7 million meals.

Although the Food Bank can accept large donations of truckloads of surplus produce from grocery and produce outlets at its Portland warehouse, it has neither the staff nor the distribution system to collect and distribute fresh produce from thousands of backyard gardens.

So the challenge was connecting gardeners with their local emergency food outlets, she said.

Enter the Oregon Master Gardener Association. Its members are trained in the fine points of gardening by horticulturists at OSU Extension Service county offices. Home gardeners then contact these master gardeners through the 21 local Master Gardener chapters throughout Oregon.

This year, the Extension offices will help Master Gardeners who would like to provide produce for food boxes and soup kitchens with the number and location of the nearest emergency food outlet or soup kitchen.

Their donations will be much appreciated, Stork said. Fresh produce is a rarity in the emergency food system.

Ideally, gardeners should know where they will be taking their produce before they begin their harvest, so they can take it directly from the garden to the food distribution center with as little lag time as possible.

And don't worry if you have too many zucchinis or tomatoes but figure the agency will be inundated with such items. Even too much zucchini is a treat, Stork said. "Fresh is always better than canned."

For information about the nearest location, call your local Oregon Master Gardeners, county Extension office, or Bernert. In Portland, you may contact the Oregon Food Bank at 503-282-0555 or toll free at 1-800-777-7427.

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Ann Marie VanDerZanden, 541-737-2503