CORVALLIS - Generous Oregon gardeners donated heaps of garden-fresh produce to emergency food banks this summer during the first statewide year of the "Grow an Extra Row" program in Oregon.

Oregon State University's Extension Service united this year with the Oregon Master Gardeners Association and Oregon food banks and pantries to help gardeners find a place where their bumper crops of tomatoes and squash were gratefully accepted.

"We call it 'Gardening without Guilt,'" said Margaret Grant, executive director of the Marion-Polk Food Share in Salem. "People were able to grow as much as they wanted to and not worry about what to do with it all."

Amy Stork, spokeswoman for the Oregon Food Bank in Portland, said that many people rely on emergency food packages to see them past a financial crisis. Last year, 401,000 Oregonians needed emergency food. Shelters and kitchens served 2.7 million meals.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, the state leader for the OSU Extension Service's Master Gardener Program, said the trick was linking up gardeners with the food banks. While some gardeners dropped by their nearest food bank during business hours, others simply left boxes and bags of produce on the doorstep.

Fresh produce is at a premium in emergency food baskets, since it is difficult to coordinate many small donations of produce, Stork said. But with the help of the Extension Service and Master Gardeners, the gardeners brought the produce to the right place so it could be given to the right people and included in emergency food baskets.

Usually, those baskets contain mostly packaged, processed and canned items. But this summer and fall, they included such prime garden bounty as exotic melons and vine-ripened tomatoes.

Oregon's "Grow an Extra Row" program is an offshoot of the national "Plant a Row" program begun by the Garden Writers of America.

The program had existed in Jackson and Josephine counties for several years, but this was the first summer that a statewide effort was in place. While this year's cooperation between Extension, the food bank and the gardeners was considered a rousing success, that impression comes mostly from anecdotal information, VanDerZanden said.

Plans for next year include a better accounting of how much additional fresh produce is brought in through the program, and providing additional advice to gardeners who want to share their garden produce with their local food bank.

Already, the home-garden project to benefit food banks is spreading: Organizations such as 4-H clubs in the Marion-Polk area are growing gardens to supplement food boxes.

For more information about how to become involved in the "Grow an Extra Row" program next year, contact VanDerZanden, Melinda Bernert of the Oregon Master Gardener's Association, or your local extension office.

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Amy Stork, 503-282-0555