LANGDON, N.H. -- Sharon Crossman hadn't tasted fresh fruits or vegetables in a week. Since her husband had two heart attacks and stopped working, she has relied on disability checks and the free food provided by a food pantry.
But lately, the only fresh produce available at the Fall Mountain Foodshelf where she volunteers has been shriveled potatoes and sprouting onions.
Pantry director Mary Lou Huffling expects that to change soon, as she has begun asking local gardeners and farmers to grow extra rows of produce to donate.
"Almost everyone around here has a garden," said Huffling, who also runs a program that delivers meals to the hungry in this rural part of southwestern New Hampshire. "If they would grow a row for the food program and the Friendly Meals program, it would help so much."
At least 50 families have responded to Huffling's request and she thinks about 100 will end up participating. In July, she expects to feed fresh vegetables to 100 to 130 families each week.
"People have been very excited about it," Huffling said.
She has learned that her idea and even the name she chose for it, Grow a Row, are not new.
Sharp increases in food and fuel prices and the shaky economy are creating alarming shortages at food banks and pantries around the country at the same time that demand is surging.
Programs like Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national campaign that encourages gardeners to grow extra produce for donation, and New Jersey-based Grow-a-Row, are similar to Huffling's.
"Because of the rising food costs and gas costs people are unable to buy what they need," said Carol Ledbetter, program administrator of the Virginia-based Garden Writers Association, which began sponsoring Plant a Row for the Hungry in 1995. "There's a greater need for the food and so our program is even more important."
Helene Meisser, director of the Northwest New Jersey Community Action Program Inc. in Phillipsburg, said that last year her food bank received about 70,000 pounds of produce from the New Jersey Grow-a-Row through a combination of volunteer farming and food gathering. The food was distributed to charitable agencies in three counties.
At the same time that costs are rising, demand is surging at food banks and pantries around the nation.
Produce donations can't come fast enough in a country where almost 11 percent of households had trouble getting everyone enough food in 2006, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate. About 4 percent, or 4.6 million households, experienced some form of hunger.
Huffling says demand at Fall Mountain has shot up from 30 to 40 families a week last year to more than 130 this year, and she can no longer afford to stock the pantry with milk, cheese and fresh produce.
Nationally, America's Second Harvest, a national hunger-relief organization based in Chicago, said some food banks are reporting demand 20 percent above last year's. Spokesman Ron Fraser said the increase is higher in places, and food pantries have even had to close because of shortages.
There are no known statistics on the national impact of programs like Grow a Row. Fraser said that is because donations are made locally and aren't always tracked.
One of Huffling's first volunteers was Susan Esslinger, 53, a high school job coach who runs a farm in nearby Alstead with her husband.
"I know people who are disabled and who are not working," said Esslinger, who planted extra tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets, lettuce and green beans in May. "I also know people that have a lot of children and just can't make ends meet. Many people in the town go to the Foodshelf to help extend their dollar."
Crossman, 63, and her husband, a former electrician and service engineer, were financially stable until two years ago, although she said a workplace accident had forced her to stop working. The Crossmans were even able to help their three daughters pay for their weddings.
Then Crossman's husband had two heart attacks. He stopped working and lost his health insurance as operations produced hefty medical bills.
Sharon Crossman said they were hungry until they found the Fall Mountain Foodshelf about six months ago. She said they didn't have any bread and were eating a lot of oatmeal. They stopped celebrating holidays and considered a chocolate bar she received from the pantry on Mother's Day as a "real treat."
Now she and Huffing are looking forward to the first batch of donated fruits and vegetables this summer.
"When you don't have lettuce, tomatoes, peppers or anything else that's fresh vegetables, you miss it," Crossman said.
© 2008 Associated Press