Food Is Free Albuquerque launches its
garden box program in response to the pandemic

By Joanna Manganaro Toto

Aside from being known as the summer before COVID-19 hit, the summer of 2019 in Santa Fe will be remembered for its bumper crop of apricots. As tree branches grew heavy with the velvety fruits, the city’s residents scrambled to put them to good use. They furiously made jams and jellies and cobblers and tarts. They posted on NextDoor, offering to give away the leftover bounty from their trees. Local chefs also got in on the apricot extravaganza; every restaurant’s dessert special seemed to involve the fruit in one way or another. At the farmers market, shoppers passed them by, shaking their heads in obvious apricot fatigue. And yet, for all the selling and cooking and baking and giving away, the sidewalks were still covered in the smashed remains of apricots beyond their prime, with sticky footprints spreading their goo down the street. It was impossible to keep up, no matter how hard Santa Fe tried.

Five summers before, new friends Erin Garrison and Trista Teeter observed a similar fruit explosion in Albuquerque. Having started learning to can together, they longed to test out their new skill with the apples and peaches and plums and, yes, apricots that seemed to be ignored on trees in the city’s neighborhoods. So, on a lark, they turned to Craigslist. Garrison and Teeter posted an open request to harvest fruit trees on private property, offering to give the trees’ owners first dibs on the bounty, if they were allowed to keep the rest. To their surprise, their post generated ten responses. Garrison and Teeter, with their children in tow, set off on their first harvest, gathering about two hundred pounds of fruit. Realizing it was far more than they could can, they left the excess at a bus stop for hungry passersby.

Garrison and Teeter were amazed at what they were able to gather and give to those in need, and they were thrilled at the great response from the trees’ owners. They decided that their idea had the potential to be much bigger. Researching similar efforts online, they discovered the international Food Is Free organization, which was founded in 2012 in Austin by John Vandeusen Edwards. They reached out, and the organization allowed them to join its network, bringing Food Is Free Albuquerque to life.

Garrison explains, “Our core belief as a group is that fresh food is a human right.” That belief has helped to shape the programs that the organization has rolled out through the years. Its Harvest program, inspired by Garrison and Teeter’s initial Craigslist adventure, is its longest-running and is the core activity of Food Is Free Albuquerque. In the warmer months, the organization sends its thirty to fifty volunteers out to backyards, farms, and other private properties to harvest ripe fruits and vegetables. Property owners take what they can use, and the excess is donated to food banks and homeless shelters, including the Center for Peace and Justice, SteelBridge, and HopeWorks in Albuquerque and the Food Depot in Santa Fe.

Home and property owners can sign up to have their trees or gardens harvested on Food Is Free Albuquerque’s website, where they can schedule a harvesting date when their fruits or vegetables are ripe and ready to be picked. In keeping with their own children’s involvement in their first harvest, Garrison and Teeter encourage volunteers to bring their kids along in order to pass down the tradition of giving back to the community. 

In 2019, Food Is Free Albuquerque launched a program through which it builds accessible gardens for people with disabilities. Sponsored by local businesses and built by volunteers from those businesses, these gardens are custom-created to meet the specific needs of their new owners. Potential recipients of the accessible gardens can be nominated on Food Is Free Albuquerque’s website and are chosen by its garden committee. Garrison explains, “We ask our nominees: What do you need, what do you want, and what are your biggest dreams?” With the information they gather, the group creates a garden plan that enables the recipients to grow their own food. “With this particular program, we are bringing the community and the garden to the folks that we are serving,” says Garrison.

Just as Food Is Free Albuquerque was gearing up for this year’s harvesting season, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Garrison says, “All of our programming involves gathering together in groups, so we had to pause and step back and see what was going to happen next.” With her organization’s plans for the season dashed, Garrison found herself dealing with the uncertainty by compulsively building garden boxes. She and Teeter decided to offer those boxes, along with seeds, growing pots, and self-watering pots to people who signed up on their website via a lottery-based system, in an effort to help ease the fears generated by seeing empty shelves at grocery stores. Spurred by a feature on KRQE, over 9,600 people signed up for the program, which Garrison and Teeter named Gift of Growing. Though the program is currently closed to new requests, Food Is Free Albuquerque continues to work through existing entries and hopes to open it up for a new round of requests as soon as funding and peoplepower allow.

Tying together the goal of Gift of Growing with her organization’s overall mission, Garrison says, “Food really is power. When we as a community are growing food for ourselves and sharing food with one another, there’s a lot of power in that. When everybody’s doing a little, we can take care of a lot [of people]. We don’t have to be scared if there’s a run on the stores as long as we have a sustainable, equitable food system here. I really believe that’s possible. That’s what we’re striving for, and we do it one apple at a time.”

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