Pittstown, New Jersey (CNN) — When Chip Paillex started a garden with his 4-year-old daughter in 2002, he never imagined it would change the lives of thousands of people.
That first year, they grew much more produce than their family could eat. Paillex did not want the excess going to waste, so he started giving it to friends and co-workers. Then he learned about others who needed it more.
“We saw a three-line article in the paper,” Paillex remembers. “It said, ‘If you ever have extra produce, bring it down to the food pantry. Grow a row for the hungry.'”
“At first, I thought it was just that people were hungry,” Paillex said. “But then I realized that people were hungry for fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Since then, Paillex has been helping to provide fresh produce for more than just his local pantry. His nonprofit, America’s Grow-a-Row, now grows and harvests fruits and vegetables for people in need all over the state.
“New Jersey, the Garden State, is known for its produce,” said Paillex, 47. “(But) there’s tons of produce throughout this state that, unfortunately, doesn’t make its way to a lot of the people that are in need here.”
Spreading the wealth
Paillex started the organization from his small plot, with help from family and close friends. Every weekday for almost four years, he worked in the garden from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. before heading off to his full-time job. Then he gardened again until nightfall.
In 2007, he left his corporate job to dedicate himself full time to the nonprofit. It has grown to 49 acres of farmland and almost 4,000 volunteers.
To help distribute the hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce it grows each year, the group partnered with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. They also collect excess from other farms and supermarkets in the area. The produce is donated to food banks all over the state.
“Our goal is to get everybody in the state — whether it be a child or an adult — to be able to eat healthy,” Paillex said. “It’s not something that should be a luxury.”
When Paillex learned about food deserts — areas in the country that do not have access to healthy, affordable food — he and his group set up farm markets to provide free fresh produce to residents of these areas.
From July to November, the group holds its free farm markets in five cities in New Jersey, including Camden and Newark. Residents also receive healthy recipes for preparing the produce.
The group’s free farm markets have been a lifesaver for Imogene Thompson. Living on a fixed income, the 64-year-old had trouble getting the fresh food necessary for her health.
“I have diabetes and high blood pressure. Eating healthy is very important to me,” she said. “Some things that I need for my diet, a lot of times I can’t afford, especially produce.”
Thompson now goes to the group’s farm markets in Jersey City, and things have turned around for her.
“I have lost some weight. My sugar is better controlled, and the vegetables and food is delicious,” Thompson said. “Without Chip, nobody around here would be eating fresh fruits and vegetables like we do.”
For Paillex and his group, the work is about more than just feeding people. The goal also is to educate people of all ages about where their food comes from and why it is important. Paillex said recipients also return to volunteer with the group.
“There’s a sense of community that comes out of this program,” he said.
The group’s summer youth program introduces children from New Jersey’s inner city areas to farming and healthy eating. For many of these children, it is their first time on a farm.
“They immediately are struck by the fact that food grows out of the ground,” Paillex said. “For them to be able to actually pull it out of the ground and harvest it and then bring it home to their families, that’s huge.”
America’s Grow-A-Row has donated almost 3 million pounds of fresh produce, which has reached roughly 140,000 people. Paillex plans to expand the program to other states.
“To be able to put fresh food on someone’s plate who’s hungry that night,” Paillex said, “there’s no greater feeling and no greater reward.”
Want to get involved? Check out the America’s Grow-a-Row website at www.americasgrowarow.org and see how to help.