Heather Neikirk

Recently, my family and I accompanied my son, a high school junior, to pick up books for his second semester of the College Credit Plus program at Kent State University Stark Campus.

Of course this family excursion took place around lunchtime and provided us the opportunity to visit one of our favorite local eateries.

We parked the car and entered the restaurant and began to study the menu boards.

My husband and daughter then left to get us a table, and my son and I entered the order line.

An ordinary couple stood in front of us in line, waiting to be called to the order counter.

The man was talking to another customer, but really didn’t pay that much attention.

The man turned around and said: “Well, I guess it’s your lucky day. C’mon, I’m buying your lunch.”

My son and I looked at each other stunned in disbelief.

Of course, I told him that wasn’t necessary, but the couple insisted.

So our family enjoyed a great lunch on behalf of a generous stranger.

We thanked the couple again as we left and promised to “pay it forward” as our sincere thank you for their random act of kindness.

I am sure that you are wondering what does this story have to do with gardening or local food?

The kind act got me thinking about the bigger picture and legendary coach Woody Hayes’ famous quote “You can never pay back, so you should always try to pay forward.”

Apply this to gardening and local food and I’ll ask you, how can we “pay it forward”?

How do we develop the next generation of food producers and gardeners?

How are we going to grow enough food to feed 9 billion people around the world?

How can we “grow” access to fresh, locally grown food and products?

How can we grow sustainable practices and reduce food waste?

The answer is simple; we GROW IT FORWARD!

Here’s four tips, along with some links and resources to get you started.

Plan. Plant and grow an extra row in your garden. Simply order extra seeds, buy extra plants, grow additional starts and plant them in an “extra” row or container in your garden or that extra acre on your farm. Harvest those plantings and donate the fruits or vegetables to your neighbors or a local food pantry or food bank.

Check out these opportunities to “Grow a Row” in your community:

• America’s Grow a Row — www.americasgrowarow.org/

• Akron/Canton Regional Food Bank, Plant a Row for the Hungry — www.akroncantonfoodbank.org/events/foodbank/plant-row-hungry

• Stark County Hunger Task Force: Plant Something Green Campaign — www.starkhunger.org/

Engage and educate. Share your love of fresh local food, and knowledge of gardening with a young person or new/beginning gardener. Take the time and mentor a youth gardening participant or a beginning gardener.

Extend your knowledge and sharing by teaching classes at a local community center, library, community garden site, school garden or garden club.

Consider becoming an OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer. More information is available online at mastergardener.osu.edu/ or from your county extension office. Start your own community food garden club or volunteer with a school participating in the Ohio Farm to School Program (farmtoschool.osu.edu/). You may also consider serving on your local food council or with your local community garden network as a volunteer like the Summit Food Policy Coalition at summitfpc.wordpress.com/ or Let’s Grow Akron at letsgrowakron.org.

Glean, glean, glean. Don’t let good, fresh, local food go to waste. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), gleaning is defined as “the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, or any other source in order to provide it to those in need.” This process can be an important source of fresh produce for food insecure individuals and families. In fact, in 2011, USDA gleaned 900,000 pounds of fresh produce for the Feds Feed Families Food Drive.

Organize a local gleaning program or food drive that supports food security for local residents in your community. Volunteer at your local farmers market to collect any unsold produce and acceptable products that can be donated to the local food pantry or food bank. Be sure to practice food safety during the gleaning process. For some helpful tips on gleaning, check out USDA’s Let’s Glean Toolkit at www.usda.gov/documents/usda_gleaning_toolkit.pdf

Recycle and compost. Give back to Mother Earth by composting — nature’s way of recycling. Practice and implement sustainable gardening practices; conserve water; protect the soil and reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible. Even certain food wastes can be recycled. For more information on conservation, recycling or composting programs in your neighborhood contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or your local solid waste authority.

So, what will your plan be to “grow it forward” this year?

Heather Neikirk is a Stark County Extension Educator in agriculture and natural resources for The Ohio State University. Neikirk also serves as co-leader for Extension’s Local Foods signature program. If you have questions about local foods, farm to school, food production, or food gardening, contact her at 330-832-9856 or neikirk.2@osu.edu.