Backyard gardeners in Utah are bringing in the bounty, harvesting more tomatoes, peppers and zucchini than they can possibly eat.

Some may preserve what they’ve grown, just like Grandma did, while others will secretly leave a bag on the neighbor’s porch.

And sadly, some will just let it go to waste.

One of the best things to do with excess fruits and vegetables is to donate them to those who can’t afford them, says Pat Thomas, founder of Salt Lake City’s year-old Backyard GardenShare program.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Thomas is the founder of Backyard GardenShare.
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Thomas is the founder of Backyard GardenShare.

The grass-roots effort connects urban gardeners who have excess produce to volunteers who will collect and deliver it to food pantries, schools, churches and community groups that can get it to those in need.

In 2016 — Backyard GardenShare’s first year of operation — more than 7,000 pounds of produce was collected and distributed, said Thomas. ”I’m guessing we will double that this year, since we have doubled the number of collectors and distribution sites.”

Gardeners can find the nearest drop-off site by visiting www.backyardgardenshare.org. Most collectors are individuals, but local businesses have signed on this year to help, Thomas said.

The website also lists distributions sites such as the Utah Food Bank, Crossroads Urban Center and Boys and Girls Clubs. Thomas said for many people, it may be more convenient to go directly to the distribution site, especially if it’s a neighborhood school. Three Salt Lake District schools — East and Highland highs and Beacon Heights Elementary — as well as 11 Granite District schools have said they’d like to get donations.

“The idea is to streamline the process,” Thomas said.

GardenShare operates throughout Utah’s growing season, but September and October are when garden vegetables come on ”full bore” and the donations are at their peak.

On a recent morning, Thomas found a box — weighing about 37 pounds — full of corn, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash that had been left on her porch. There also were bags of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables left in a cooler, all of which she planned to take to a local church later that day for distribution.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Thomas is the founder of Backyard GardenShare, a grass-roots program that finds volunteers willing to collect excess garden tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more from their neighbors and then deliver to pantries, schools and churches that will distribute the food to people in need. On the porch of her home she keeps a cooler for those dropping off donations.
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Thomas is the founder of Backyard GardenShare, a grass-roots program that finds volunteers willing to collect excess garden tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more from their neighbors and then deliver to pantries, schools and churches that will distribute the food to people in need. On the porch of her home she keeps a cooler for those dropping off donations.

The bulk of what Backyard GardenShare collects is vegetables, but surplus fruit is always welcome, said Thomas.

For those who have entire fruit or nut trees that need picking, it’s best to register with Salt Lake City FruitShare program. The program, sponsored by The Green Urban Lunch Box, connects fruit tree owners with volunteers. Owners, volunteers and hunger-relief groups each get one-third of what is picked. Learn more at www.thegreenurbanlunchbox.com.

Ginette Bott, the chief development officer with the Utah Food Bank, said sharing the bounty “does wonders for a lot of families” who rarely get fresh produce, especially in Salt Lake City and urban areas.

“We see a real difference between the rural and urban families in need,” she said. “In rural areas, they do a lot of gardening and home canning. Those in a city setting can‘t afford produce and don’t have the means to grow it.”

She said getting fresh fruits and vegetables is nutritionally important for families with low income, but also helps to educate young children. “Adding that component to a meal shouldn‘t be a luxury,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A recent donation taken in by Pat Thomas, the founder of Backyard GardenShare.
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A recent donation taken in by Pat Thomas, the founder of Backyard GardenShare.

At the Sugar House Boys and Girls Club, for example,  the produce is incorporated into the three daily meals that are served as well as snacks and cooking classes. The children also get to take any remaining produce home to their families.

Organizing Backyard GardenShare has become a 30-hour-a-week endeavor for Thomas. But she calls it “the sweetest thing” knowing that surplus food is not being wasted and is going to those in need.

Thomas said as a child her family experienced scarcity and “we knew the value of having a garden.” As an adult, she lived in a developing country while serving a mission for the LDS Church. “I saw people laboring on farms, yet they still didn‘t have access to food,” she said.

The experiences pushed her into action. She “unofficially” started GardenShare about seven years ago, distributing fliers in her Salt Lake City neighborhood offering to collect extra fruits and vegetables for donation. But few people were interested.

A few years later, while she was earning her master’s degree at Westminster College in nonprofit management, her professor suggested Thomas relaunch the program.

This time around people are more receptive. “People want to be part of something that is working,” she said.

No amount of produce is too small, said Thomas. But she encourages people to “donate what you would still eat yourself.” 

That means giving produce ”when it’s beautiful and at its peak of freshness,” she said. In other words, leave the mushy tomatoes and the 3-foot zucchini for the compost pile.

It also helps if similar vegetables and fruits are kept together in boxes or bags that can be handled easily. For example, tomatoes in one container, cucumbers and squash in another.

The number of  urban gardens has jumped significantly over the past decade in Utah and across the country. The downturn in the economy is part of the reason, but many people just want to know where their food comes from, Thomas said.

Utah is unique, however, because when the Mormon pioneers came, they created spacious lots for gardening and planted fruit trees.

“The pioneers used to welcome newcomers into the valley with baskets of fruit and vegetables,” Thomas said,

She hopes to turn that old-time tradition into a modern-day phenomenon.

“We have enough surplus in this valley we can really make a huge difference,” she said. ”It doesn‘t have to go to waste.”