See how his small plot matured to feed his community and provide produce to food pantries.
Credit: Bill Wadman

For many, gardening is a fulfilling hobby that helps people enjoy more fresh produce. It may have started that way for this New Jersey man, but it became much more when he realized his efforts could have serious impact on the food security and health of his community.

The Situation

Chip Paillex walked into his neighborhood food pantry for the first time in 2002 after hearing a plea for donations on a local radio station. It was the height of the New Jersey summer, but instead of the crisp greens and juicy tomatoes that filled his own kitchen, the food pantry's shelves were crammed with canned food. "I realized there was a huge need that had to be addressed," said Paillex. A novice gardener, Paillex had recently planted a 30-by-30 plot on a local farm. By the time the harvest season ended, he'd donated 120 pounds of veggies to the food pantry. When he saw how much a single garden could produce, Paillex was determined to grow even more the next season.

What He Did

In subsequent years, Paillex expanded his garden (now on a friend's property) to nine times the size of that original plot. He woke early to visit the garden before work and asked members of his church to help when it was time to pick produce. In 2008, Paillex created America's Grow-a-Row—a nonprofit organization to continue his mission to provide fresh produce for those in need. Soon after, he raised funds to buy a 138-acre farm, the first of three properties the organization would eventually acquire. Running America's Grow-a-Row is now his full-time job and 20 employees plus over 9,000 volunteers a year help plant and harvest vegetables and fruit. They also host 1,000 schoolchildren from underserved districts yearly for farm visits focused on healthy eating and agriculture education.

Why It's Cool

To date, America's Grow- a-Row has donated more than 10.5 million pounds of produce to food banks, soup kitchens and other organizations providing low- or no-cost meals and groceries, spanning Maine to Virginia. One beneficiary is NYC-based food bank City Harvest, whose farmers' market–like offerings are a color- ful contrast to the processed foods Paillex saw back in 2002. "New Yorkers should not just be receiving calories," says Kimberly Conchada, City Harvest volunteer services specialist, "but things that make them healthy, strong and happy."

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine May 2020.