The summer harvest is now well past the zenith of its abundance. How do we know this? By the desperate pleas of the green thumbs among us, asking if anyone needs cucumbers (for the love of all that is holy), if anyone knows what to do with a bounty of peppers, an extra loaf of zucchini bread, or a bushel of sweet potatoes.
We are fortunate on Long Island to have land fertile enough for an overabundance of backyard garden produce, but unfortunate in that bumper crops yield more than friends and family can consume and are wasted. What to do with the bounty, then?
Enter Kristin Elmore, founder of the Freeport chapter of the Austin, Texas-based Food Is Free Project, our local branch of over 350 growers who are cultivating locally grown vegetables—and giving them away. Always an avid grower, Elmore began small in 2013, inspired by the organization’s founders, with whom she was friends with on Facebook.
And so every Friday, from 2:oo to 7:00 p.m., from mid-May to as late as early November, Elmore sets up a table with both common—think cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash and eggplants—and unique vegetables, like, in her words, “funky hot peppers, heirloom tomatoes and unique varieties that invite people to ask me questions.” And every Friday, people come to drop off and pick up these vegetables, do swaps, or just snack on homegrown goods while getting to know fellow gardeners and learning from them.
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My third major reason for doing what I do every year, is that I absolutely love it. I have always had an extreme obsession/interest in food, including where it comes from, nutrition, and cooking. I have found a way to put a healthy spin on these interests while helping people. When someone picks up a zucchini and some herbs from the table and asks me if I have any tips on how to cook with it, I can run off a quick list of tasty dishes that aren't even complicated and we all know how passionate I am when i do. The truth is, I would be maintaining a large garden even if I did not run the FIFF project because I absolutely love growing food and enjoying fresh produce. When I started our local branch of this project back in 2013, I had one large box on the lawn with a hand written sign on it. I never could have imagined the impact I would have on the entire community, I'm still surprised when I'm out and about and someone I don't know recognizes me. But what fills my heart to the brim the most is how much this project has grown every year and seeing how far our reach is. I meet new people every single week who have found the project on Facebook, Instagram, Google, or even just by word of mouth. The majority of our supporters aren't even just takers. They give. Constantly. Their time, their energy, their extra plants, their extra produce, they drop off donations of soil and endless other supplies. I say it all the time and I will keep saying it because it is true, this project would NOT be possible or successful without all of you. Please do not try to give me 100% credit because all I had was a vision… YOU ALL are the ones that helped me bring this project to life and for that, I am eternally grateful. So thank YOU and take a moment to thank yourself today if you have participated in this project so far. ❤❤❤❤❤
After all, education is part of what inspired her. “People are so disconnected now from where their food comes from,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know that an artichoke grows from a weird thing and if you don’t pick it, it becomes a giant bloom. And they don’t know that it’s kind of easy to grow your own food, and satisfying. That’s why, in the spring, I give away seedlings to encourage people to grow some plants and maybe contribute to the project. This summer, I gave away 500!”
However, her motivation is multi-pronged. Although she enjoys informing new friends about the joys of gardening and introducing them to different varieties, the Food Is Free Project serves a greater purpose.
“I’ve always liked having a garden, and you can’t eat ten zucchini a day, so I give away the extras. Food waste in America is kind of out of control, but if you share with your neighbors, it can be used before it goes bad,” she says. “Meanwhile, even though there is waste, there is scarcity. You never know what your neighbors might need; people lose their jobs or go through tough spots.I’ve had homeless people directed here over the years and they are so very grateful. They take what they can use, and we are so happy to be able to provide them with fresh, good food.”
Her ultimate goal is to have others start up stations in towns throughout Long Island, and possibly start a village garden in her community, powered by volunteers like the friends and families she “bullies,” she laughs, into helping her now. They and visitors to the stand donate not only their excess crops, but also bags of soil, seed packets, bamboo poles for trellises, and other garden aids she might have use for.
“The entire table is run on donations and it’s real grassroots at the moment. More and more people are contributing with each year, and I have to thank the community for that support, the people who come by, say hi, and spread the word so that we can help more people who might be in need. Otherwise, it’s just me with a table of tomatoes!” she jokes.
But it’s so much more than that. By creating a safe, homey space where food is freely given, Elmore isn’t just growing vegetables; she’s doing her part in growing a community. One where food is free.