WASHINGTON — A reporter's telephone call interrupted Otis Butler's breakfast. He had been eating a tomato out of his freezer.
He'd grown the tomato himself, in a garden carved out of a vacant lot--in the Bronx.
Butler is a retired baker and president of the Union Prospect Area Block Assn. But when he talks tomatoes, he sounds like a farmer.
'Could Have Won a Prize'
"We need rain," he says. "We had six weeks of hot weather last summer, hot and dry. It knocked our tomatoes down. We didn't even enter the 58th Street horticulture fair, but when I saw tomatoes that won prizes, I said, what the heck, our tomatoes are as good as these. We could have won a prize.
"Nobody had real good tomatoes last summer."
An unlikely mid-morning conversation, an unlikely farmer, talking about crops grown from seeds that came from an unlikely place: The seed-jammed office of the America the Beautiful Fund in an aging building a few blocks from the White House.
It may be the only office in Washington in which the top drawer of a green file cabinet is labeled "Prairie Grass," the middle drawer is labeled "Bulk Flowers and Muskmelon" and the bottom drawer is labeled "Corn, Beans, Pea Packets."
From these shoe box quarters, and operating on a shoestring, the fund distributes donated vegetable, herb and flower seeds and bulbs to local projects across America.
America the Beautiful Fund turns out to be four part-time workers, a handful of volunteers and a full-time staff of three. Wildlife biologist Paul Bruce Dowling, the founder, is executive director. Former actress Nanine Bilski is national projects director and anthropologist Nat Thomas spends much of his time packing envelopes with seed packets.
'Operation Green Plant'
They are Johnny Appleseeds with a computer--and a far broader variety of seeds to give away. They figure their "Operation Green Plant" reaches into one county in 10, maybe even one in three.
The idea is simplicity itself: Persuade a dozen of the nation's seed companies to donate--rather than destroy--"last year's" seeds, on the promise they will go only to people who would not be in a position to buy them at the corner hardware store.
Persuade APA Transport and other trucking companies to bring in the seeds at no charge. Persuade local poverty agencies, 4-H chapters, church groups, neighborhood associations, refugee centers, drug rehabilitation centers, county health departments, soup kitchens, nursing homes--even hospices for AIDS patients--to start gardening projects. Charge them only the cost of shipping the seeds--50 cents a pound.
For $12 in shipping fees, a group can get enough seeds to sow two acres of tomatoes and one acre each of corn, lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers and squash.
The idea started in 1980 with 60 beautification projects. It took off when the new environmental ethic caught up with the nation's dawning awareness that there was hunger on the street corners, in the small towns and even on the farms of this prosperous, fertile and sometimes overfed land.
50,000 Pounds of Seeds
Last season, 15,000 groups asked for, received and distributed 500,000 packets of seeds and 50,000 pounds in bulk.
That's enough, Dowling estimates, to produce "over 70 million pounds of fresh, nutritious food, grown by and for hungry people at the cost of a penny a pound."
"It is an idea so simple and so basic that it works," he says.
The value of the food grown last year, by Dowling's seat-of-the-pants estimate, is $20 million.
This year, those figures will double, Dowling and Bilski confidently predict. They should know. Many of the seeds for this spring's planting already have been shipped.
Most seeds go to the rural poor, but many go to inner-city projects such as Otis Butler's in the Bronx, one of hundreds of gardens in metropolitan New York.
Butler says 18 adults and a handful of kids raised enough food to feed themselves and 30 other families. So successful has the project been that participants had to buy freezers so they could store what couldn't be eaten fresh--including, of course, Otis' breakfast tomato.
"There's a little work attached to it," he says, "but when you look at what you've grown--oh, God!"
Says Bilski: "Do you know that Chinese proverb: 'Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime'?"
Dowling: "Money's not appreciated the way seeds are. Seeds are a chance to do something for oneself--a chance to put God's own magic to work."
Seeds to AIDS Patients
Bilski: "We got word about what happened when we sent paperwhite narcissus bulbs to a project for AIDS patients. The doctors told us about one man who had been antisocial all his life. Then he grew some paperwhites and brought them around to the bedsides of other patients. It gave them joy and it gave him joy. A doctor said maybe this was the one positive thing he was waiting to do before he died."