Since 2015, David Thompson has given his extra fruits and vegetables to neighbors via a small table situated on the sidewalk outside of Tacoma Urban Farm. Every year in several of Tacoma’s residential neighborhoods, Thompson and volunteers build raised garden beds to grow free produce street-side.

“[It’s a way] to build a community, using food as the vehicle,” Thompson said.

Once the produce is fully grown and ready, anyone is free to harvest and enjoy. This year’s garden builds with Thompson started in February and will continue until early July.

Harvest Pierce County's fruit gleaning
Apples come from Harvest Pierce County’s fruit gleaning project. Photo courtesy: David Thompson

What started out as a part-time hobby that connects Thompson to his neighbors has multiplied into more garden beds and street-side tables every year. He founded the Tacoma chapter of Food is Free when he began giving away the abundance of fruits, vegetables and chicken eggs he had on his farm.

The cycle of building small community gardens, known by Food is Free as “Gardens for the People” begins each year when volunteers contact Thompson about a garden in their neighborhood. He schedules a date to build that neighborhood’s garden and invites others to come out via the Facebook event page for Food is Free Tacoma. This season’s gardens were determined back in November when volunteer homeowners signed up with Thompson.

“It just really builds a nice community,” Thompson said. “You can see that all of this year’s gardens are circling last year’s. It’s really working.”

Food is Free Table
Food is Free produce is available on a table in a Tacoma neighborhood. Photo courtesy: David Thompson

In order for Thompson to qualify for his small sustainability grant, he must build Gardens for the People in public spaces. But since parkways – that green spaces between the sidewalk and the curb – are technically a public space maintained by the resident who owns that property, Food is Free relies on homeowners who volunteer the space. They also must get permission from the city and, of course, follow all codes, such as a two-foot height limit.

A Google map marks in red where existing Gardens for the People are located, and in blue are this year’s upcoming gardens. These dates to build Gardens for the People occur on most Saturdays (and the occasional weekday) for about three hours, usually between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

The resident of the house in front of the garden bed, neighbors and anyone else who wants to join in learning how to build a raised garden work collectively by planting produce starters alongside soil and compost from Harvest Pierce County and other local organizations.

“All the plants came from the community, all the work came from the community,” Thompson said. “I try to really keep it so it’s the neighborhoods that are participating in it.”

Gardens for the People
Gardens for the People are set up in yards around town. Photo courtesy: David Thompson

When it’s time to harvest, someone puts the fruits and vegetables on a small table near the garden bed so neighbors can enjoy the free food as they please.

After the gardens are set up and ready to grow for the rest of the season, Thompson turns his attention to working with Harvest Pierce County’s Gleaning Project. As a branch leader for the project, he coordinates the harvesting of pears and apples from trees throughout the region.

Last year, he helped give away almost two tons of fruit from the gleaning project. Some will go to local food banks and some fruit will be distributed among Gardens for the People tables throughout Tacoma.

Food is Free Tacoma
Cabbage grows tall next to a Food is Free Tacoma sign. Photo courtesy: David Thompson

“That way, everybody gets a chance for fresh food. It’s all free, and it comes right from our community,” Thompson said.

Anyone who wants to volunteer their parkway space, their time, their produce starters or other gardening materials can contact Food is Free Tacoma and Thompson mainly through Facebook, as well as their website, Twitter or Instagram.

“I really love the idea of Food is Free. The more I thought about it and I contemplated it, this idea of building community and giving stuff away, it really just brings the best out in people,” Thompson said.

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