While you’re flipping through all those glossy seed catalogs and marking down heirloom varieties of tomatoes and zinnias, take a second to consider the people in your own neighborhood who may not have enough to eat. Did you know that just a few bucks worth of seeds could help a struggling family grow their own vegetable garden? Give a man a tomato, he eats for a day. Give him a handful of seeds…
That’s the idea behind The Dinner Garden, a 501(c)(3) non-profit started by Holly Hirshberg. The Dinner Garden gives people fruit and vegetable seeds free of charge, along with advice and tips for how to grow them. The charity has been able to reach all over the country and has provided seeds to tens of thousands of families. I was honored to have the opportunity to interview someone like Holly, who saw a problem and has found an inventive way to help fix it.
Could you describe for people who aren’t familiar with your charity, just what exactly The Dinner Garden does?
The Dinner Garden is a non profit organization (funded by donations) that gives away free fruit and vegetable seeds to anyone in the USA who wants to start a garden. We are working to end hunger by teaching people to grow their own food in their yards and in containers and then giving them the seeds to get started.
Who are the people behind the scenes?
I am the founder and the Director of The Dinner Garden. I plan our public events, promote DG, make contacts in the community, and handle our social media. My husband Sean is the Chief Operating Officer. He does all of our financial stuff and manages all the seed requests. He also designed and maintains our website and built our database. Julie Autaubo is our Head Marketing Consultant. She sends out requests for donations, handles our press releases, and researches funding opportunities. She also makes the majority of our seed packs. Jacqui, my daughter, creates seed packs and leads activities for kids when we go to events.
We have other volunteers as well who promote The Dinner Garden, and pack up and distribute seeds. Many of our volunteers have special needs or are disabled. We believe that all people can contribute to their community and provide a lot of volunteer opportunities to people who have difficulty getting out of their homes for whatever reason.
Currently, we are all working as volunteers. We have no paid staff. Once we secure funding, we plan to expand our operations into helping establish more family and community gardens and support more farmers markets so our gardeners will have places to sell their produce. We also want to expand our Seeds for School Kids program into all 50 states.
How many seed packets have you sent out since you started The Dinner Garden? To how many people?
Last year was our first year in business. We sent out over 20,000 seed packs to individuals, families, and communities in 12 months. To give you an idea of how quickly we are growing, last month we sent out over 10,000 seed packs, half of what we sent out last year.
Do you ever hear back from the people who receive your seed packets? What do they say?
We do hear back! You can see a lot of the comments we get at http://www.dinnergarden.org/testimonials.html. People are excited to find another way to live. They love having more control over their own food security. Once the worry about not having enough food is gone, a lot of stress in relieved in people’s lives.
I noticed that you’ve started a project called “Seeds for School Kids,” how did that get started, and what is it all about?
My friends at the Food Bank told me about a backpack program where they send home food with kids for the weekend. There are a lot of kids in America who only eat when they get a free meal at school. I contacted the Arkansas Rice Depot and asked them if we could provide seeds to the 25,000 Arkansas kids and their families who participate in the backpack program. So far we have sent over 10,000 packs. Because we don’t have any funding or corporate sponsorship, we are raising money a little at a time to complete the project. We need $3,500 to be able to send seeds to the other 15,000 kids.
The best part of this program is that the kids who receive our seed packs get enough seeds to grow food for the whole family. They will also be able to save seeds from each harvest to plant the next year and share with their neighbors. It is a really inexpensive and sustainable way to get a lot of food to a lot of people.
We further support our gardeners through our partnerships with other websites. www.worldfoodgarden.org provides planting times and gardening mentors to our gardeners. www.lifeonthebalcony.com helps our gardeners who will be growing in containers. www.myhgel.com is our go-to resource for when our gardeners have questions best answered by a master gardener.
People were growing food long before there were gardening stores and we show our gardeners how to grow food inexpensively and using the supplies they have at home.
In 2009 you received the Yellow Rose of Texas Award from Governor Rick Perry, what was that like?
It was amazing! I was so honored! The award is given by the governor to Texas women for their “significant contributions to their communities and to the preservation of our Texas history, the accomplishments of our present and the building of our future.” I have only lived in Texas for 2 ½ years, and this award really made me feel like I belong here.
In other exciting news, I was just named a “Cabot Cheese Commonkindness.com Community Celebrity” for my work with The Dinner Garden. We are thrilled to be working with Cabot Cheese, a company owned by Farmers, and Commonkindness.com, a company devoted to funding charities.
However, these awards are not for me alone. The success of The Dinner Garden is due to the efforts of all of our volunteers working together to make The Dinner Garden the 2010 version of the Victory Garden.
What are your plans for the future of The Dinner Garden?
Our goal for the next few years is to have one garden for every 8 people. That is approximately 38 million gardens in the United States. It is a big goal, but it is a realistic goal that will end hunger in America.
I know that The Dinner Garden is a registered charity . . . is it more helpful if people donate money or seeds? Are there any other types of donations that could help your organization?
We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so all donations made to us are tax deductible. Right now, we need money the most. We are actively seeking grants and corporate sponsorships because we are poised and ready to go to the next level of serving our communities and gardeners. Donations of seeds are always needed and appreciated. If anyone has seeds left over from this years planting or last years harvest, please send them our way and we will find them good homes.
All of our services are free to the recipient and we don’t require anyone to prove their need. I founded The Dinner Garden on the belief that people want work to improve their lives. Anyone who wants to garden with us is welcome.