Brandon Stankewsky and his wife, Katherine, have an odd way of doing business at the Capital City Public Market.
Not suspecting the nature of the Stankewsky's fruit and vegetable stand, a man in his fifties stops to peruse their bins of fresh greens, radishes, carrots, and beets.
“Hi, is this cilantro?” he asks.
Brandon Stankewsky replies in the affirmative and ducks down to grab more radishes.
“Here’s a bag,” his wife, Kathrine, says as she steps in for her husband.
“How much is it?” the man asks after taking a handful of cilantro.
“It’s all donation, it’s a charity garden,” Kathrine answers.
“Oh, alright,” he says, pleasantly surprised. He tosses a few bills in the only cash register at hand — an old, bulk-sized, plastic pretzel container.
But the Stankewskys are not in business just to give downtown Boiseans a price break on produce. They call their enterprise A Seed Planted. The slogans on their booth explain their methods of operation “Take what you need, give what you can” and “One dollar feeds one hundred people.”
However, Brandon Stankewsky has not always had charity as his guiding economic principle. His straw hat, tanned face, cowboy boots, and slightly gaunt appearance also belie the fact that gardening is a relatively recent experience for him. In 2008, he was like most of his cohorts- midtwenties, recently married, and wanting to make more money. He came across an article in Sprout magazine that demonstrated how to make a profit from a half acre of land. Double win Stankewsky thought. He could not only grow the organic food he and Kathrine could not afford to buy, but also make some money doing it.
A harvest ripe for the donating.
His living situation at the time — a one bedroom, third floor apartment with no half acre of his own — called for special gardening techniques. Stankewsy started by clearing out the closet of his daughter’s loft bedroom, installing it with fluorescent lights, and buying seed packets and trays. To plant his seedlings, instead of a half acre, he settled for a 3 foot by 4 foot patio garden. His first attempt at gardening however, resulted in neither produce nor profit. Everything died. But what also died that winter was Stankewsky design to profit from gardening.
A spot on the radio about the Idaho Food Bank and the thousand families a month that they served made the dollar signs disappear from his eyes. It dawned on him that while he was trying to make money from food, thousands of his fellow Idahoans were wondering where their next meal would come from.
“How can I put a price on a head of lettuce?” he thought.
Stankewsky confided his new idea to a close friend, Josh Kuening.
“He told me, ‘I am going to quit my job and eventually Kat is going to quit hers and we are going to have a charity.’ Then I watched him,” Kuening recalled.
Stankewsky began by convincing his parents to lend him a 1,200 square foot triangle of their yard for a garden. He read up on gardening, constructed 23 wooden flats, and hauled over 100 pounds of soil up to his apartment where his daughter’s bedroom closet once again served as a makeshift greenhouse. To plant, he spread out blankets on his living room floor. To water, he had to carry each flat down three fights of stairs and outside to the patio.
In the Spring, he started planting. To plant his broccoli exactly one inch apart, he made a wire grid of one inch squares in the soil.
“If I blinked, I would lose my spot,” he said, “That’s how I learned.”
Stankewsky worked hard that Spring, starting work in the garden at 6 a.m. and then going to his full time job as a server at Cottonwood Grill. His 5 a.m. wake ups and exacting planting techniques paid off, however.
“That was my best bountiful garden,” Stankewsky remembered, “It just exploded.”
The explosion resulted in pounds of produce for the Rescue Mission, Christy House, and a Russian family.
The next year, Stankewsky’s garden project expanded unexpectedly. On his way to his parent’s house, he noticed a sign with a telephone number on it in front of an empty plot of land. He figured whoever answered that number would know something about the land, so he called. The owner of the property did answer and Stankewsky explained his gardening mission. The owner (who asked to remain unnamed) immediately agreed to let Stankewsky use the one acre plot. While the garden was just what Stankewsky was looking for, it also stood in need of major development. Uncultivated and weed infested, its one redeeming quality was its irrigation system. To get the land workable, Stankewsky figured he should start tilling. Little did he know the effect the tiller he rented would have on his new land. One night of rain on the loosened soil turned his potential garden into an acre of weeds. So Stankewsky attacked with shovels, hoes, and the help of his younger brother.
Widna Stankewsky watched the work her two sons put in trying to rid the garden of the weeds.
“They would spend like 7 hours pulling weeds. It would take one rain and it would be like they had not done nothing,” Widna Stankewsky remembered.
Volunteers at the garden.
But land development was not the only challenge of 2010. The Stankewsky’s were also facing unemployment. Expecting her third child, Katherine had quit her job to take care of their two daughters and baby-on- the-way. Then her husband got laid off. Now the garden meant more than ever.
“If I did not have the garden, then I would have nothing and I’d just be an unemployed guy,” Stankewsky said.
But the precarity of his family’s financial situation and his acre of seemingly untamable weeds started to weigh on him.
“I couldn’t even look at it, I didn’t come over for weeks,” Standkewsky recalled
Leaving the weeds to themselves, he decided to regroup by networking and research. He found two landscaping companies to dump their leaves and grass clippings on his gardens. And while the organic matter smothered the weeds, he not only found a job as an insurance agent for American National Insurance Plan, but also a new home.
The Stankewsky’s learned about the house for rent on the Boise Bench from a friend. Its 700 square feet of raised garden beds, 100 square foot green house, and close proximity to the Hattie Howerton Memorial Garden all made it an ideal abode. The rent was out of their price range, but if they were going to put the greenhouse and custom garden to good use, the owner was willing come down to something they could afford. The Stankewsky’s moved in and used the green house and raised beds to grow starts and plants for seeds for the coming year. As Spring came around again, Stankewsky was ready to get a jump start on the 2011 growing season. Now, well into the season, Stankewsky can stand back and admire his rows of lettuce, radishes, beets, strawberries, and carrots ready for harvest.
“I am just waiting for the family to say, ‘I need food,’ and I will be like Willy Wonka,” Stankewsky says stepping sideways and extending his hand toward his garden one Saturday afternoon.
But he is not waiting to be asked. Instead he makes weekly drop offs of his produce at the various soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Boise.
And the need is real. The Rescue Mission serves a total of 950 meals a day at its three locations, River of Life Rescue Mission, City of Light Home for Women and Children, and the Lighthouse Rescue Mission in Nampa. Roger Page manages the warehouse at 24th and Fairview where the majority of donations are delivered.
“If you think about it, we receive truck loads of cakes, donuts, and starchy breads everyday, but not fresh fruits and vegetables.” Page says.
Offerings at thte Capital City Public Market.
While the bags of bread and boxes of donuts from Albertson’s and Winco evidence some of the main suppliers of starches, the Rescue Mission relies on local farmers and backyard gardeners for most of its donations of fresh produce. Though some of its facilities have small gardens, in no way are they able to meet the demand for produce called for by the hundreds of people who come to their facilities each day. Neither did an attempt at a one acre garden prove successful. Thus people like Stankewsky are indispensable.
Maxine Davis, the cook at City Light Women and Children’s Home in downtown Boise prepares lunch and diner for approximately 120 people everyday at the facility. She has a bin full of lettuce chopped up and ready to be served with the pizza for supper Thursday night. Her current fresh produce supply consists of lettuce, radishes, and four large containers of strawberries. She also has a bin of odds and ends including a few stalks of rhubarb, tomatillos, and hot peppers. All the lettuce was donated by local growers. She is starting to run low and there is no way of predicting when a fresh supply will come.
“We could really use a lot of vegetables,” she says.
Page reiterates that the kind of food its facilities serve plays a part in their overall program of rehabilitation.
“We’re trying to restore their faith, their health, and their hope,” he explains, “and if we feed them something nutritious, we can do that a lot better than if we treat them like animals.”
That means incorporating more fresh produce into the menu.
“The goal is to serve a salad with lunch and diner. We don’t get to do it all the time,” he said.
For the Stankewskys, every time they drop off produce they know it is about more than just vegetables.
“I see all these people, people who need so much more than produce, but that is all I can give them right now,” Katherine Stankewsky says.
While Page and the other employees and volunteers at the Rescue Mission use Stankewsky’s lettuce and spinach to bring hope to the jobless, homeless, and addicted, Brandon Standkewsky hopes he is growing an awareness of the needs of others in the community.
“I have this theory that everything we do in life is inherently selfish. We can either do things that make us feel good and don’t help other people or we can do things that make us feel good and help other people,” he explained.
That is why the Stankewskys started a booth this year at the Capital City Public Market in downtown Boise. Donations collected for the produce have brought in anywhere from 60 to 190 dollars in a day, a modest sum in light of the thousands of dollars the Stankewskys have invested in getting things up and running, but it is not really about the money. The Stankewskys are really there to invite other people to join them in feeding the hungry, especially by volunteering at the garden. Stankewsky sees it as “an invitation to do something cool.”
June 11 evidenced the growing interest in A Seed Planted. Members of Stankewsky’s church, close friends, and others totaling about a dozen volunteers came out for the Work Day event. From 9 am. until 2 p.m. Stankewsky and the volunteers weeded five rows of plants and planned out improvements to the irrigation system.
In August, Stankewsky is taking an activist approach to promoting awareness of hunger issues. Dubbed Operation Starvation Week, Stankewsky is declaring a week long hunger strike. He plans to spend the week of August 27 without eating, living on a platform constructed in his garden. He wants to demonstrate that people go hungry in a world full of food. The week will kick off with a benefit concert and bar-b-que.
But every time he drops off produce at the Rescue Mission Stankewsky is reminded why he does what he does. This particular Saturday morning, he left Josh Keuning to man the booth at the market and drove over to River of Life Rescue Mission with ten bags of lettuce. Surprisingly, the cooks are hesitant to accept his donation.
“We haven’t even used up what you gave us Tuesday,” they told Stankewsky. He had delivered 28 bags of lettuce earlier in the week. After a few phone calls, however, the decision was made to take the lettuce and distribute it other shelters.
As Stankewsky closed the back of his truck one of the Rescue Mission volunteers stopped him.
“If you think about it and you grow a lot, the VA Hospital might take some,” he suggested.
“See, its people like you say stuff that get things going,” Stankewsky replied, clearly excited about the idea.
And his reaction to almost having his donation rejected?
“It just proves that I can do it. They’re completely stocked.”