NEW PORT RICHEY — The Volunteer Way food bank was handing out the usual nonperishables — rice, beans, cereal and canned tuna — when Wendi Szaiff came in Monday.
She picked up a few staples but also got something new: a bag of freshly picked lettuce.
"I'll be making salads or BLTs for my sons," Szaiff said. "This is awesome."
The lettuce was grown behind the food bank's warehouse on Congress Street, where the nonprofit has set up a sophisticated hydroponics garden to harvest fresh vegetables.
Officials at Volunteer Way hatched the plan six months ago to put more food on its shelves, at a time when demand was going up and supplies were dwindling.
They hope to create a renewable source of produce while encouraging food bank patrons to consider healthy options.
"This has been tremendous," said Lester Cypher, executive director of Volunteer Way. "It's not 100 percent salvation, but it's part of the solution."
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With the economic downturn, families are heading to local food banks like Volunteer Way in record numbers.
The number of families served has doubled in the past year. Some weeks, the weekly food supply is gone by Monday afternoon, forcing the food bank to turn needy families away.
How to restock the shelves? Officials decided to try growing some of the food themselves.
After hearing about the hydroponics system that grows food for the inmates at the Land O'Lakes jail, the food bank decided to use the same setup.
Martha O'Brien, the food bank's assistant CEO, also got help from Carolyn Kramer, a master gardener at University of Florida's extension services.
The plants are grown in Styrofoam pots attached to poles in the ground. Four plants can be grown in each pot, and three pots are stacked on each pole.
The pots are filled with coconut fibers instead of soil and are irrigated with a water and nutrient solution.
Using $10,000 of the food bank's savings, O'Brien ordered the system online. Volunteers built it in July.
A company in Palm City donated 2,000 lettuce seeds and 1,000 tomato seeds to grow laurel and cortina lettuce and galina tomatoes.
O'Brien chose to grow lettuce and tomatoes first. She'll try onions and zucchini later.
"It's the basics for a salad," O'Brien said. "Everybody eats lettuce and tomatoes."
There was a learning curve for the food bank volunteers, many of whom have little gardening experience.
"We didn't plant deeply enough with the tomatoes," O'Brien said, "so they broke and died."
But in August, their efforts paid off.
Dark, leafy lettuce began to sprout. It was cleaned and stuffed into resealable bags.
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Volunteer Way joins a small group of food banks nationwide that have begun to grow their own food.
The Vermont Foodbank purchased a farm this summer to grow its own fruits and vegetables, said Ross Fraser, spokesman for America's Second Harvest in Chicago, the nation's leading hunger relief charity.
And a nationwide initiative called Plant a Row for the Hungry encourages gardeners to grow extra produce for food banks.
"A number of food banks have community gardens," Fraser said. "It isn't rare, but it isn't common, either. It's a good way to get farm-fresh, just-picked fruits and vegetables to people in need."
While Volunteer Way continues to harvest on the small plot behind the warehouse, it plans to someday grow produce on a donated 6.8-acre plot across the street.
But it will take an investment: Officials say getting started on that first acre will cost $130,000.
Cypher, the food bank's executive director, hopes more donations come in so that the food bank can sustain its growing customer.
"We're going to need to get going on that 6.8 acres," he said. "We're turning away families. Food is getting tighter by the day."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.