By Sabrina Hubbell
Back in 2015, David Thompson, a local Tacoma resident, became curious about how he could share the products of his backyard garden with those in need. Now, Thompson runs an organization called Food is Free Tacoma, with dozens of gardens that provide free food to communities and individuals experiencing food insecurity.
At the time, Thompson’s home garden was growing more produce than he could use himself. He also found it very difficult arranging for family and friends to take some of the produce off of his hands. “I was growing a lot of stuff at my house and I couldn’t give it away. I would try and get my family to come pick it up and they wouldn’t pick it up on time. I just grew way too much stuff so the only thing I could do was try and give it away,” Thompson said. Consequently, Thompson found himself in a dilemma. “There’s no place to put all this stuff you grew and it’s too much fun to grow it!” he said.
Thompson then read about the Food is Free organization, a nonprofit started in Austin, Texas in 2012. The organization aims to share food and educate around food insecurity as well as other issues. The organization currently has 350 food sharing projects worldwide. Thompson thought this would be a great solution to his dilemma, so he started a Food is Free project in Tacoma. “I found Food is Free on the internet and I started Food is Free Tacoma, just putting up a little table in front of my house,” Thompson said. The table had produce from his garden that was free to anyone.
Others in the neighborhood began expressing interest in setting up their own tables, but the project has since moved away from tables to distribute food. Although the Food is Free Tacoma project still allows people to give food away in front of their houses, this method of sharing produce became much harder to manage. “The tables really didn’t work. We’ve moved away from the tables,” Thompson said.
So Thompson decided to start expanding the nonprofit and finding other methods of sharing the produce. “In 2018 I decided to try and build gardens in town. So I built them in the parkways with a couple of grants” he said. The construction of the gardens was a huge success. We built about 35 of them in those first two years” Thompson added, “Last year we got a grant from AARP to build 40 garden beds”.
Food is Free Tacoma distributes the produce from those gardens at events in Tacoma’s parks. “What we do is set up in local parks and we’ll do one of those events once a month at one of those 8 parks,” Thompson said. “We’re in south Tacoma a lot,” Thompson explains that lots of people take food from their events and that “usually no food is leftover!” And if there is, Thompson takes it over to the Buddhist temple and they use it in their cooking there.
Thompson explains that both the eastern and southern parts of Tacoma have poor access to grocery stores, making the project’s operations there extremely important. Thompson uses the term “food desert” to describe an area or community like the eastern or southern parts of Tacoma that seriously lacks food availability, especially fresh produce. “It’s a bad food desert. We try to work our way in, so there’s fresh produce available to people in those areas where they don’t really have access and have to drive quite a ways to get produce” Thompson said. Furthermore, Thompson explained why fresh produce is so important in food deserts. “If you have to take a bus or something like that to go to the grocery store, well, you’re not gonna see fresh produce that often. That’s why we set up in the parks there,” he said.
Food is Free Tacoma not only acquires produce from individuals but also Receives food from bigger organizations and food rescues. “Say there was a truckload of bananas going somewhere and whoever was going to take them couldn’t take those bananas so they are just sitting on a dock or something like that. Food rescue organizations will call me up and say ‘hey we’ve got this truckload of bananas do you want them and will bring me the truckload of bananas,’” Thompson added.
What started as an overflowing backyard garden has since snowballed into an important provider of fresh vegetables in some of Tacoma’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Including everything from salvaging bananas to dozens of gardens around Tacoma, Thompson’s Food is Free Tacoma has become a heartwarming story of community aid.