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From a few lowly seeds does a million dollar food program grow

It started with a donation of 60,000 packets of flower seeds to the America the Beautiful Fund. Now it has bloomed into a $1 million seed program that brings food to the hungry, bright blossoms to blighted communities, and good-works projects to gentry-led garden clubs.

The America the Beautiful Fund (ABF), a volunteer organization supporting citizen involvement in environmental quality, began Operation Green Plant in 1980 as a way to reward local ABF projects, ranging from block associations to cultural groups. The donation came from a supporter who could not give much money that year, but could donate seeds.

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About 60 groups received packets. The response was so great, says Nadine Bilski of ABF, that the program was expanded. Today 10,000 community groups and educational organizations receive seeds and grant money. And much of Operation Green Plant's budget comes in the form of donations from seed companies, private individuals, and foundations.

But what started largely as a beautification and ``horticultural therapy'' effort has grown to meet a need that was not obvious at the start.

In 1983, communities began to ask for food seeds to alleviate hunger. Today 80 percent of Operation Green Plant's donations are for gardens supplying foods for individuals, families, soup kitchens, and pantries, and Ms. Bilski says last year an estimated $10 million in food aid was generated.

Other seeds and bulbs go to bring flowers to the elderly, AIDs patients, and community parks and lots.

``It's a real important program,'' says Linda Hennig, who works with her husband in the Northeast Kingdom VISTA program in Newport, Vermont. ``We grew lettuce, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and swiss chard [last season]. We've done some planting with children, and given out flowers to nursing homes.''

Food in VISTA's community garden is grown by families who then bring it to the soup kitchen, which feeds about 50 people two nights a week. The added bonus from the garden has been a big boon to the food program, says Mrs. Hennig, and unused vegetables can be sent home with the families.

While programs vary, free seeds for flowers, herbs, and vegetables are only available to community gardens and charitable or educational groups, and a project description must be submitted before the seeds are sent. ``We get requests from churches who see hungry people in their community, and want to start a food garden. Community action programs spanning four or five counties order seeds in bulk, as much as half a ton,'' says Bilski.

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A drug rehabilitation program in Washington, D.C., is reaping double benefits. Not only do they grow their own food, but the program gives drug addicts a different kind of therapy through planting, tending, and harvesting food.

She shows a letter from a group in Houston telling how their initial participation in Operation Green Plant spurred a landowner to donate space for a community garden. An interfaith group whose members sponsored soup kitchens became interested. The local agricultural extension agency donated tractors. Volunteers cleared land, and gardens were planted. The venture was so successful, she says, that the group has received grants to expand the program. ``It's a very exciting, very magical tool,'' says Bilski.

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