Caroline Shook, CEO of Housing Opportunities in Valparaiso, which runs the Porter County Food Pantry program, still remembers the box of "beautiful" freshly picked hot peppers donated one day last summer by a local gardener with a surplus.
"These peppers looked great, but they definitely were very hot," Shook said.
"I remember when we put them out on our food pickup day, we made sure to put a sign in front of them explaining it. I thought for sure by the end of the day, they'd still be sitting there without any takers. Instead, just the opposite. By 9:30 a.m., they were gone."
Shook describes personal garden donations as one of the great misconceptions about which food items patrons in need prefer.
"I've been here since 2000, and it's not just shelf staples like canned goods and boxed goods that people want and need," Shook said.
"Now, more than ever, people are realizing the value of fresh fruits and vegetables and produce of all kinds and we're happy to accept any donations from anyone with gardens who have extra to share."
Shook said the food pantry in Valparaiso provides for more than 1,600 client visits a month, so any donations are happily accepted.
And in Lake County, the staff of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana — which was founded in 1982, originally based in a barn and now headquartered in Gary — echos the same need.
Today, it has grown into a facility that acquires, stores and distributes more than 5.1 million pounds of food throughout Lake and also Porter counties, as a USDA-approved, primary distributor of food to local pantries, shelters, day care centers, and soup kitchens. The Food Bank program is an affiliate of Feeding America, the nation's largest food bank network.
Both the Food Bank organization and Housing Opportunities local food pantries agree that summer garden donations also provide an excellent chance to educate clients about nutrition and food preparation.
"If we have certain items brought in and those we are sharing with might not be familiar with how to prepare or possible recipes, we have our staff research and provide this information," Shook said.
"We've had gardeners drop off everything from eggplant and broccoli to all types of zucchini and squash. And last year, we had a farmer bring us apples and we found many people wanting them along with a recipe for how to make apple sauce."
In Porter County, Dawn and Dana Ray and their daughters Audrey Carrillo, 7, and Caroline Carrillo, 5, are making it their family mission to harvest extra garden yields this season to share with the food pantry in Valparaiso.
They got the idea last season after talking with Shook and hearing about Housing Opportunities' campaign for this summer, "Grow an Extra Row."
"The girls wanted to do something to give back, and they are at the right age to learn and understand about helping others," Dawn said.
After 10 years of living in Chicago, the family has lived in their home in Sand Creek Community in Chesterton for the past five years and now have ample room for a large garden.
"This year, we actually doubled the size of our family garden just to make sure we would have extra pickings to take to the food pantry each week," Dawn said.
"The girls love spending the summer watching everything grow and helping care for the garden and then having the chance to harvest and share the results."
Dawn, who is originally from Portage, said she grew up with a large family garden "for sharing" and a grandmother who loved to can and also bring her extra green beans and tomatoes to family, neighbors and friends.
"Today, there are more and more children who have never seen a fresh tomato or don't realize how a potato grows," Dawn said.
So for this season, the family has been busy picking "fresh greens," such as buttercrunch lettuce, collards and Swiss chard, along with fresh raspberries, green onions, sweet yellow peppers, green peppers and chives to transport to the food pantry.
"We've just discovered that now, that Housing Opportunities' food pantry in Valparaiso is in need of an extra refrigerator for space to store the added amounts of fresh fruits and produce, so that's our next family project," Dawn said.
"So we are going to help our girls donate a new refrigerator to help out. The girls have already learned that by giving, you get back so much more in return when you know you're helping others."