Project combats county hunger one meal at a time

A hero, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “(a person) of superhuman strength, courage, or ability…” but some of the biggest heroes of the Greensboro community are everyday people.

Take Don and Kristy Milholin for example. The Milholins began providing bags of food regularly to Morehead Elementary School, a project they deemed “Operation Backpack,” in 2009. As this continued, their efforts grew into the Out of the Garden Project, a food assistance program for children and their families in the Piedmont area of North Carolina (Guilford County). Out of the Garden serves over half of the 127 schools in Guilford County and one each in Forsyth and Alamance Counties.

“I think (Out of the Garden) is a wonderful, great project,” said Ann Reeder, a volunteer at the organization. She serves as a social worker at James B. Dudley High School and found out about Out of the Garden through an advertisement.

“It is a community-based project where they give back,” said Reeder. “There are many schools that utilize this service. Providing food for families that don’t have food for … their children is awesome. (Out of the Garden) helps to supply not only meals (during the week), but snacks for families on weekends that they can have before they go back to school on Mondays.

“Sometimes (at Dudley), we have families that are in need. We just started a food pantry at the school and I thought (Out of the Garden) would be a good opportunity to fill our pantry.”

Today, Out of the Garden is the largest agency of its kind in the Piedmont Triad. The project has provided 200,000 meals each month to children and their families so far in 2017.

The foundation of Out of the Garden lies within the “Operation Backpack” program. In this program, the organization packages two individual meals for a family of four to eat over the weekend. In addition, they package snacks for the child, totaling to around seven pounds of food. A typical bag will include pasta, pasta sauce, rice, kidney beans, corn and a vegetable medley plus a snack pack.

They plan to distribute more than two million meals in 2017 alone through “Operation Backpack.”

Out of the Garden also operates “Fresh Mobile Markets,” a unique program in the Piedmont Triad that passes out around 50 pounds of food to each family in need in the food deserts of Guilford County. The organization connects with schools who make announcements that there will free food drop-offs. Everyone looking to receive food must fill out a form and qualify by their income. The program currently serves more than 1200 families monthly and over 5000 individuals through the 22 fresh mobile markets.

Out of the Garden is involved a variety of other initiatives including their Feeding and Enrichment Center, the Food Reclamation Initiative and a shared-use community kitchen.

What makes Out of the Garden especially unique is their ability to equip other everyday people with the tools necessary to battle childhood hunger in the Piedmont Triad. The organization posts advertisements on a variety of mediums for volunteer recruitment.

According to a fact sheet sent out by Out of the Garden’s administration, “Volunteers are the life-blood of the Out of the Garden Project. The community that has been built through our volunteers and their never-ending service has been amazing.”

800 people volunteer at Out of the Garden every month.

“I think that number has been growing, and I also think that we are connecting people through volunteer opportunities that they really feel passionate about,” said volunteer coordinator Rebecca Entwistle. “My goal is to provide volunteers with a meaningful experience where they are able to see a glimpse of childhood hunger.”

Entwistle returned to the city of Greensboro after graduating from college and looked to become a part of a local nonprofit organization.

“I go to church at Hope Chapel and we have a partnership with Out of the Garden,” said Entwistle. “I went to their Facebook page and they were looking for a long-term coordinator. I reached out to Don, he interviewed me, and I got the job.

“My favorite part is the people I get to work with all day. They are people that intentionally spend their time helping other people. They are people that are extremely selfless with their time and just want to help out, build connections and (support) those in need.”

Out of the Garden sees new faces each day. For volunteer Samantha Davis, a food drop-off held on Oct. 31 at the organization’s warehouse was her first experience with Out of the Garden. She learned of the organization through an advertisement and decided to look into it.

“I saw it on the news,” said Davis. “I never knew about (Out of the Garden) because I’m not from around here. This (was) my first time volunteering, but I have children and I understand.”

Regardless of how long they have worked with Out of the Garden, the members and volunteers share a common goal of combatting child hunger in the area and uplifting the community’s youth through this initiative.

“People are so appreciative,” said Reeder. “Anything that helps kids learn in school and keep them focused is a benefit. Kids can’t learn if they are hungry. It helps fight childhood hunger, which is a great need in our community.”

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