America’s Grow-a-Row hits historic milestone
PITTSTOWN — Chip Paillex was in middle management when Unilever transferred him to Hunterdon County.
He wanted a father-daughter project with his then-4-year-old, Kyra, so they planted a garden.
Their harvest was much bigger than they thought. Paillex noticed a three-line item in a local newspaper about bringing excess harvest to the Flemington Food Pantry, so he did.
With the help of some people from his church, Bethlehem Presbyterian, Paillex expanded the plot to 125-by-55 feet on the property of Peaceful Valley Orchards.
They harvested 120 pounds of produce the first year. Now they are up to 1.5 million pounds a year, and America’s Grow-a-Row just reached the milestone of 10 million pounds of produce distributed since that first little plot in 2002.
Kyra Paillex is studying education at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pa., and comes home on school vacations to assist, along with 9,000 volunteers who help out each year.
Paillex’s stepson makes a trip to the farms each year to assist. There are three farms now, one in Milford and two in Pittstown.
Of the volunteers, about 3,000 come from companies which use the time as a team-building exercise. Many are fairly local, such as AT&T, Merck and Prudential, but other corporations fly in teams of volunteers from across the country. The biggest contingent of corporate volunteers is about 200 people.
Prudential brings about 10 groups of volunteers each year who bring the produce back to Newark where the company is headquartered. They pick around 50,000 pounds a year.
Another third of the volunteers are from community groups such as scouts, 4-H or Key Clubs or are just individuals. The last third are schools.
America’s Grow-a-Row goes into schools in food desserts from January to May to educate students about food and nutrition, then brings them in to volunteer. Besides Newark, the food goes to Jersey City, East Orange and Camden as well as out-of-state.
Paillex said America’s Grow-a-Row works with City Harvest in New York City, Phil-Abundance in Philadelphia and with Grace Bethlehem Church in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.
Bethlehem, Pa., is one of the biggest food desserts and the church has taken ownership of the program, working with three other organizations, including the Lehigh Valley Hispanic Center.
They pick up produce and distribute it to food pantries around the Valley each week during the season.
“There’s not a lot of red tape,” Paillex said.
There is a little more red tape involved in taking produce out of state but Grow-a-Row works with a network to take produce to Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Connecticut.
He emphasized there are other things as important as the volunteers who help harvest. Financial support is necessary as is communication.
“Journalists are part of it,” he noted, saying he maintains a mailing list of local news outlets.
A new addition to Grow-a-Row is a commercial kitchen at the headquarters farm. There school groups bring the produce they have harvested and learn to prepare a meal. They eat at the farm and bring some home to their families. Families can also get recipes to help them prepare vegetables that might be unfamiliar.
“It’s full circle,” Paillex said. “It’s all about education.”
One goal is to build on that to educate families to eat healthy on a budget.
Paillex emphasizes the term food dessert is appropriate. When he was in sales he often visited small supermarkets in cities. He recently went back to some of the stores and saw virtually no fresh food on the shelves. “Brown bananas, a couple of oranges, a couple of apples.” It convinced him all over again how important his mission is.
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