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Grow a Row founder helps kick off Harvest campaign

Idea, nurtured in a glovebox, spread to food banks across the continent

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Ron O’Donovan, who started Grow a Row with wife Eunice, plants seeds behind Winnipeg Harvest with J.H. Bruns Collegiate students Jamie Campbell and Julia Stoyko on Monday. The girls and their classmates were inspired to help when O’Donovan spoke at their school.

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Ron O’Donovan, who started Grow a Row with wife Eunice, plants seeds behind Winnipeg Harvest with J.H. Bruns Collegiate students Jamie Campbell and Julia Stoyko on Monday. The girls and their classmates were inspired to help when O’Donovan spoke at their school. Photo Store Photo Store

Winnipeg Harvest launched its 27th annual Grow a Row campaign last Monday with help from half of the brain trust that came up with the idea.

Ron O’Donovan, 80, says he and wife Eunice had two 75-pound bags of potatoes left over in 1985 after a good year of harvesting from a "pretty large garden plot" in their Winnipeg yard.

Friends and neighbours didn’t need more, so the O’Donovan’s took the extra spuds to Winnipeg Harvest, which had just opened its doors that year to feed Winnipeg’s hungry.

With the garden wrapped up for the season, and the surplus potatoes squared away, the couple drove southward for a week-long holiday.

As they drove, the spectre of their produce being wasted, uneaten (if they hadn’t donated them to Harvest) entered their conversation.

"How many other gardeners were in the same position and didn’t know what to do with it?" O’Donovan said they wondered.

And that’s when O’Donovan uttered the phrase that has blossomed into the annual campaign to encourage Winnipeggers to grow extra produce for Winnipeg’s hungry.

"Quite frankly, as soon as I said ‘grow a row’ I had (Eunice) write it down on a piece of scrap paper and put it in the glove compartment," O’Donovan recalls.

"Honestly I thought, ‘That’s a great idea, but am I going to remember it?’"

Thankfully, O’Donovan and his now-late wife Eunice did remember (or didn’t lose the piece of paper, at least) and upon their return set to work putting the Grow a Row brainstorm into practice.

O’Donovan remembers sitting down with Harvest executive director David Northcott and founder Lee Newton in the winter of 1986 to discuss the new campaign.

They liked the idea, he said, and as a media relations guy for the city’s Parks and Recreation department at the time, O’Donovan started promoting it.

"I knew the people in the print media, television, and the radio . . . getting the coverage, that was a very important part of it," he said, adding without media attention, the idea would have died on the vine.

"It was really the Winnipeg media that helped it, and that’s kept it going since."

The Grow a Row concept has since been copied by the Canadian Food Bank Association and spread its roots to thousands of food banks across North America.

In Manitoba, T & T Seeds has been donating seeds to the program from day one, and Food Matters Manitoba provided 129 free gardening kits to schools growing a row for Harvest this year.

Harvest has gardens in raised beds and blue boxes behind their Winnipeg Avenue location, and invites blue-thumbed people to come by to get gardening tips.

They boast the Grow a Row program has brought in more than 3.3 million pounds of produce since it began.

"I’d like to see us break 3.5 million this year," said Harvest spokesperson Chris Albi.

Albi said people can find out how to participate online at www.winnipegharvest.org or by calling 204-982-3582.

Or, just grow extra produce and take it to the food bank.

"We get a lot of people not telling us they’re doing it, they just do it, and at harvest time we get a lot of extra vegetables," she said.

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