Food Bank gardens grow a summer bounty for area’s hungry |

Food Bank gardens grow a summer bounty for area’s hungry

Summer Lunch Assistant Karen January packs cherry tomatoes into lunches that will be distributed to 150 children living in low income housing. The tomatoes were grown in the Healthy Harvest Gardens of the Food Bank of Nevada County.
Submitted by Laura Petersen |

In Grass Valley and Penn Valley, the growing season is headed into full swing at Healthy Harvest Gardens of the Food Bank of Nevada County.

On Monday, volunteers harvested 100 pounds of cucumbers, 90 pounds of squash and 50 pounds of tomatoes. The food will feed a growing number of families struggling to make ends meet.

Now in its fourth season, the program that is wholeheartedly supported by individual volunteers and local businesses is growing with more plans to expand by winter.

To date, volunteers have distributed 4.5 tons of food from the gardens.

“It really is amazing how this community steps up. It’s also heart wrenching how many people still need help,” said founder Ellen Persa.

“It’s still just a drop in the bucket. If we could do three times what we do now it would be marvelous.”

Each month, the food from the Food Bank of Nevada County serves 7,500 to 8,000 individuals through distribution sites, emergency food, programs for children and seniors and a number of partner agencies, said Distribution Coordinator Jennifer Morrill.

Every Friday, 26 local nonprofit groups pick up food from the food bank warehouse. During the summer months, the food bank distributes lunches to 150 children a day, five days a week.

Fifty percent of those lunches contain fresh produce that comes from the Healthy Harvest Gardens, from a dozen local farms, local gleaners and state surplus.

“We’ve really changed the way we feed kids in the last five years,” Morrill said.

Throughout the summer, lunches packed with fresh fruit, cherry tomatoes and sliced zucchini is distributed to kids living in low-income housing. Fresh vegetables are making appearances in groceries given out to 65 homebound clients in the outreach program, too. Food Bank distribution sites around the county now look like miniature farmers markets with locally grown produce such as raspberries and summer squash.

“It’s fresh. For a long time what most food banks had to work with (was mostly) nonperishables. It makes a difference,” Morrill said, adding there’s no end to how much the Healthy Harvest Garden program could develop to serve the area’s growing need.

“The more fresh produce we have, the more fresh produce people could be eating.”

Persa who moved back to the area several years ago came up with the food bank garden idea after cooking meals at Hospitality House.

“That was a direct feeding of people. That helped me determine that there was so much more to do. I thought, ‘what can I do on a bigger scale?,’” Persa said.

John Olsen of Gold n’ Green Equipment rentals offered Persa the use of his land on Railroad Avenue in Grass Valley. He pitched in to help clear and trench for water and prepare a garden space — 180-foot by 60-foot fenced area conveniently located across the street from the Food Bank warehouse.

Every year, Rare Earth donates organic soil and nutrients to fill 66 4-foot by 8-foot redwood boxes.

“It’s as close to the most healthy food people would want to buy and you know they can’t afford that even with food stamps. It seemed like the right thing to do at the right time,” Persa said.

In addition to a weekly volunteer crew, the program gets help from the Woolman Semester, Knights of Columbus, Nevada Union Football team, Stanford Alumni members, and other community groups who plant, harvest, build raised beds and a shed, haul dirt and weed. Numerous other businesses have donated money, goods and services.

“There’s a grassroots feel about every step of it,” Persa said.

Persa’s own life was touched by the influence of farming. She spent several weeks every summer at her grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin, close to pigs, cows, horses and goats.

Though she led more of an urban, corporate lifestyle as an adult, those days of her youth remain dear to her. She continues to grow her own food at home and preserves the harvest, just as her grandmother did.

“I really loved that life,” she said.

Volunteers and equipment needed

So far this season, Persa has five regular volunteers for the Grass Valley garden. She would like to bump that up to 10. Volunteers are needed in Penn Valley, too.

“We’re probably two weeks away from getting slammed with harvesting in Grass Valley,” she said.

On Spenceville Road in Penn Valley, program volunteers have access to 1.5 acres of fertile land offered by the Penn Valley Community Foundation. Larger, sprawling crops such as melons and squash are grown there.

In the past year, the garden has tripled in size and will double again in time for fall planting of winter crops such as broccoli, kale and brussel sprouts.

Besides volunteers, the program is in need of equipment: Heavy duty gas-operated rototillers in good working order, weeding tools, shovels, rakes, buckets, and other miscellaneous gardening tools.

“We need things. We need hand tools. We need things that run,” said Persa. There’s rarely a day when Persa is not hauling shovels, rakes, weed eaters and gasoline around in her Subaru Forester. She has to borrow pick up trucks to haul things like wood chips. She would love a donated long bed truck big enough to tow a trailer.

“It’s not that I’m tired of getting my car dirty it’s that things won’t fit anymore,” she said.

Right now, the gardens are grown on borrowed land.

Persa has donated numerous hours, built a greenhouse in her backyard to plant starts for the program and bought supplies with her own money to increase production step by step.

Someday she hopes to build the garden to a sustainable, grant or endowment funded, full time operation to feed the county’s hungry.

“If I had a farm it would be ideal,” she said.

To make a donation or learn about volunteer opportunities, contact Ellen Persa at

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at or 530-913-3067.

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