TWISP — After building up a small, local business selling organic vegetables from her Twisp farm, Kelleigh McMillan decided one day to give them away instead.
Now — six years later — McMillan and a handful of volunteers are feeding hundreds of people who can’t afford farmers market prices for things like fresh, locally-grown tomatoes, carrots, lettuce or peas.
Thousands of servings of freshly picked garden vegetables are being distributed each summer to low-income residents who live in the Methow Valley.
“What this really has shaped into is a feeding garden,” McMillan said earlier this month, after she and three volunteers harvested some 50 pounds of green beans at her 2-acre garden a few miles from town.
Through her program, the Red Shed, McMillan also teaches high school students how to garden, and how to cook the foods that they’ve raised. And, she helps teach cooking to people with diabetes. She uses crops that can be kept into the winter — cabbage, carrots, potatoes and squash — in her cooking program.
Last week, on Monday, the beans, and several other vegetables, were picked and bagged in the morning, and by noon, kids at the Twisp Park were eating them as part of the free lunch program; patients at the Methow Valley Family Practice were helping themselves from a basket sits in the waiting room; and clients at Room One, where low income residents and others can connect with several social services, were invited to grab something from the refrigerator. The Red Shed is a program under Room One, a Twisp nonprofit organization.
The vegetables are distributed to all of these locations weekly through the summer and fall, as well as every Thursday to Twisp’s food bank, The Cove.
“I think it’s great that they do this,” said Sarah Smith, who was at the clinic for a medical appointment when volunteer Alison Gillette was refilling the waiting room basket with vine-ripened tomatoes, green beans, squash and carrots. “I’m on Social Security and I don’t get a lot of money from that, or food stamps. This really saves my life sometimes,” she said.
The food is raised for people with low income, but no one’s asked to show they qualify. “It just so happens that people who take it need it. It’s more of an honor system,” McMillan said.
She said she added the clinic to her list of deliveries after one of the physician’s assistants there told her she wanted to prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables to half of her patients.
McMillan started the Red Shed in 2007 partly because of her kids.
She noticed that some of the other parents were bringing pretty unhealthy snacks to sports practices or other events while she was packing fresh, organic carrots, strawberries and green beans.
“I saw how common that was. Everything geared towards kids is loaded with high fructose corn syrup,” she said. Yet she knew from her own kids that they gobble up a fresh carrot or handful of beans just as quickly as a cheap snack from the grocery store.
“Those people, quite simply, couldn’t afford that food,” she said. “My business had become geared toward the wealthiest people, who could afford to pay for organic food.”
She decided to dedicate a portion of her garden to low income residents, so they could enjoy locally grown food, too, and the health benefits that come with it.
“I’m just such a strong believer that good food is good medicine,” she said.
Under the nonprofit Room One, the program operates with funding from grants, appeal letters and a fundraising dinner each year when she invites her customers and other people in the community who are tied to her mission.
McMillan is the Red Shed’s only staff person.
And because the food is grown on an already existing farm, there are few costs, she said.
That’s largely because volunteers help with the labor — about 400 hours worth each summer.
Alison Gillette, who just moved to the Methow Valley, said she feels fortunate to be a volunteer, because she has learned so much about gardening and food preservation from McMillan. “She’s a great teacher. She taught me to make jam,” she said.
Emily Post, who has raised her own organic garden for 20 years, said she finds the work more satisfying with a group of people. “I just saw it as a great way to help the community, and garden with other people, which is more fun,” she said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512