Skip to main content

The City Journals

War against hunger continues, with homegrown reinforcements

Jul 25, 2017 02:53PM ● By Travis Barton

Pat Thomas, founder of Backyard GardenShare, holds a tub of produce next to her garden. Thomas has a master’s degree from Westminster in arts and community leadership. (Allan Thomas/Backyard GardenShare)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]
The sign says, “Veggies for the food bank, please no dog waste.”
It’s posted in front of Lynda Brown’s house to keep her garden free of contamination. The food isn’t for her family, it’s for those one in five children or one in seven adults suffering from hunger the studies talk about.  
“It’s a great way to make a big difference in people’s lives,” Brown said.
Brown is one of dozens of homeowners growing gardens where their fresh surplus produce is taken to collection sites and then transported to a nearby distribution site be it food banks, pantries or churches.  
It’s all part of Backyard GardenShare, Pat Thomas’ brainchild and evolving program to feed the hungry healthy food.  
“It changes your whole life, your potential, your possibility if you have not only sufficient food but nutritious food that we know fuels our minds and our bodies and gives us the minerals and the nutrients that we need,” Thomas said.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Lisa Adams, a huge proponent of the program, lives around the corner from Thomas having known her since 1977. She said the program’s a “wonderful way” to match someone’s abundance with another’s scarcity.
“There are so many people in our valley who rarely get fresh food, it is such a prized possession,” said Adams, who contributed multiple pounds of apricots last year. “If you’ve got extra, share it.”
What started seven years ago in Thomas’s  house has grown substantially. Last year marked the program’s startup across the valley when the program was under the Green Urban Lunch Box umbrella.
By the end of the harvest season in 2016, BGS had collected just over 7,000 pounds of fresh produce from two dozen collection sites that range from Syracuse to Sugar House to Holladay to Tooele. There’s a person in Boise, Idaho who plans to start the program.
BGS has now spun off into its own nonprofit. Its journey was chronicled in a documentary last fall. The 11-minute film not only won first place at the Peery Changemakers Film Festival at BYU, BGS won “Best Solution to a Social Problem.”
Thomas has found partners with the Utah Food Bank, Catholic Community Services and Salt Lake School District that will supply the food pantries at East and Highland High Schools.
All of this while also doing constant fundraising to cover costs for lawn signs (demarcates collection sites), coolers and fliers.
“It’s pretty thrilling it does take every minute of my free time, but right now that's what I want to give,” Thomas said.
People have also started growing specific produce for people of different cultures like pepper plants which are used for Caribbean-style meals.
“It's just amazing that you have an idea that you feel like has just been out there anyway…and see the community rise to it,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ understanding of hunger has evolved since her time in Guatemala, where she lived for a time during the 80s. She said she didn’t have the life experience to comprehend the implications hunger has on a person.
But she does now.
“At this point in my life…I see that it changes a person to have healthy food, it brings them opportunities, it brings them health. It gives them education, it allows them to stay in their jobs, to not miss so much work or schooling,” Thomas said.
She added she’s seen loved ones suffering from serious illness who improved significantly simply from eating more nutritiously. “That's pretty powerful. When you see it firsthand you say, ‘Gosh, we've got this (food), it’s wasting, why aren't we giving it to people?”
Brown said she loves the program saying it just seems a natural thing to do.
“(Pat’s) just done a great job of organizing and getting everything going so that it's simple and easy for people,” she said.
Growing and Developing
There’s still plenty of room for BGS to grow, Thomas said.
Having people like Brown, Adams or a Syracuse collector who amassed 800 pounds from their neighborhood take ownership with the program gives it more traction, Thomas said.
Cliff Hurst, a professor at Westminster College, used BGS as a semester project to figure out how to sustain revenue and sustainability.
Thomas is giving all her free time to the cause, but that individual ownership will cultivate the program.
“It could go faster if I wasn’t the only battery,” she said. “I’m just a AAA battery, I need a bunch of nine volts out there.”
Volunteers and participants don’t have to be gardeners to participate. Thomas has had people offer their skills like designers helping create her website or lawn signs or a man who created spreadsheets for collection hosts to organize and record their inventory.
“The impact is greater if more people bring something to the table and say I can do this,” Thomas said.
She said it can be helping her fundraise or write grants.
“As we kind of get to that point where people are adding their thread to the cloth then what's to stop it from being picked up and being put into other communities like Boise,” Thomas said.
Having people drop off the food at pantries could also deepen the roots of a person’s commitment.
“That’s the hook for people, drop it off and seeing the faces light up,” Thomas said.
Adams said people will “practically weep, they’re so happy to see fresh fruit, fresh vegetables” due to an inability to purchase or grow the produce themselves.
Thomas hopes to expand collection sites to businesses or worksites, “not just for their community around them but for their employees.”
At the University of Utah’s School of Nursing there’s a nurse who collects produce from her coworkers and then takes it home where there’s a distribution site five minutes from home.
Jolley’s Pharmacy at 1300 E. and 1700 South serves as a collection spot. The pharmacy has a delivery driver who, while making drop-offs, stops by a distribution site.
Thomas said it streamlines the process since “people are already going to work.”
“That’s a new thing I want to tap into. We do that with non-perishables when the food bank does food drives. We could be doing that all harvest season long…that’s something I’d love to see.”
Brown said the more people who hear about the program, the bigger the difference it will make.
“You're growing food and you're giving it to people who really need it. It's just a win,” she said. “I think people wait for some big thing they can do to make a difference and this way is really so simple and so easy.”
For more information on the program visit or email [email protected]