America’s Grow-a-Row works to positively improve the lives of people in the Northeast United States by planting, harvesting, rescuing, and delivering fresh produce to those in need, free of charge. With more than 9,000 volunteers, America’s Grow-a-Row grows, gleans, and gives over 1 million pounds of fruits and vegetables to people throughout New Jersey, New York City, and Pennsylvania annually. America’s Grow-a-Row educates all their volunteers about hunger, introduces younger generations to farming and healthy lifestyles, cultivates a spirit of kinship and giving, and contributes to the reduction of food waste.

Chip Paillex, founder of America’s Grow-a-Row, started the organization as a private garden in 2002. In 2008, Chip converted his private garden to a fully operational, farming non-profit. Since then, America’s Grow-a-Row has continued to expand and reach a wider audience of those in need of produce.

Food Tank had the chance to speak with Chip about diversity, volunteers, and education.

Food Tank (FT): Volunteers play an integral role in keeping America’s Grow-a-Row running smoothly. Why is it important to get people involved in the planting, harvesting, and gleaning of food?  

Chip Paillex (CP): Our 9,000 volunteers become food security advocates after learning about the hunger crisis that exists in their own communities, helping their neighbors in need, and becoming educated on the health risks faced by food insecure people. Once when a school group was visiting, a young boy complained about how he had skipped breakfast. Because he skipped breakfast, he was hungry and unable to focus on the task at hand. He then paused for a moment and said, “This must be how the people we are donating this food to feel every day.” With this realization and new source of motivation, he worked harder than any other student that day.

Volunteers also have a greater appreciation for the efforts that go into the food system and local agriculture. Those who take part in our gleaning effort work hard to prevent food waste. When done working in the fields, one of the most popular questions we hear from our volunteers is, “Where can I buy produce at a local farm market?” We are happy to point volunteers to local farmers markets and love that we are sparking an interest in local agriculture.

In addition, these volunteers serve as the backbone of individual giving. After being part of the program at such an intimate level, volunteers want to help expand our reach.

FT: How does America’s Grow-a-Row help people collaborate across diverse racial, economic, and gender lines?  

CP: We work hard to make sure everyone who comes to our farm feels at home. Volunteers and guests are welcome from all ages, backgrounds, and ability levels in the fields. Whether they’re harvesting, or cheering on their friends in the fields, they are working together for a common goal.

When our local teen volunteers work with our younger guests from under-served areas during our Grow-a-Row Kids Farm Days, an immediate connection is made. Barriers across race, economic status, and gender quickly fade away. When volunteers and guests are in the fields working together it becomes clear: we’re all just people! The experience is new for many of our volunteers and guests, and brings together people from different backgrounds.

FT: What challenges has America’s Grow-a-Row faced since its beginning in 2002?

CP: One of our biggest challenges is the rapid growth that comes from trying to keep up with an ever-growing demand. According to Feeding America, one in six children are food insecure in the US, and nearly one million people are food insecure in New Jersey alone. We constantly receive calls asking for produce donations but there is only so much we can produce each year. The need is great, and we work to maximize our resources and partner with other organizations to expand our impact.

FT: In what ways does America’s Grow-a-Row impact hunger outside of the places food is distributed?

CP: We are dedicated to educating all walks of life about the importance of giving back. Each and every corporate, student, and community volunteer will leave our fields with a better understanding of food deserts and food insecurity. Understanding the issues is the first step to making a change. Every volunteer becomes an advocate and agent of change in the fight against hunger.

FT: What advice would America’s Grow-a-Row give to similar organizations nationally or globally?

CP: Collaborate with like-minded organizations and leverage each other’s synergies. America’s Grow-a-Row is not the solution; we are only part of the solution. We can only succeed in helping those facing hunger and food insecurity by partnering with other hunger relief organizations. Partnerships create efficiencies and allow us to maximize our joint efforts. Funders find this approach quite appealing as well.

FT: What does the future entail for America’s Grow-a-Row?

CP: We plan to maximize the current land we have access to in order to produce as many fruits and vegetables as possible for those who are in need. Our long-term plan includes securing additional acreage to increase our presence and impact into additional states. Currently we serve NJ, PA, and NYC. To support that strategy we must continually recruit and involve volunteers, which potentially also translates into additional funding.

For anyone looking to support America’s Grow-a-Row through a donation or volunteering, feel free to contact Chip Paillex at [email protected]