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GROWING HOPE
Budding nonprofit grows fresh produce for food pantries. 

WRITTEN BY CLAIRE MCARTHUR
PHOTOS BY ASA GILMORE

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Earstin Whitten and his wife, Dee, tend to the garden they established behind Saint Mary’s Medical Center in Reno

Growing up in a sharecropping family in Arkansas, Earstin Whitten learned early on the value of fresh, homegrown vegetables, which fed him and his 14 siblings. And since retiring from a career in insurance, the master gardener has made it his mission to share that knowledge with Northern Nevada’s less-fortunate population.

“When you’re raised on a farm, you realize that it’s possible for people to obtain healthy food. The key is to work for it,” Whitten says. “If people have the time and the willingness to learn, they can do a lot of things for themselves. We happen to live in a society — not just Reno — where people who are less fortunate are given things like food in a can. Very seldom do they get fresh vegetables.”

As board president of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno, Whitten wanted to find a way to get fresh produce to people who might not be able to shop at places such as the co-op.

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Earstin Whitten and his wife, Dee, tend to the garden they established behind Saint Mary’s Medical Center in Reno

After learning about a weedy plot behind Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno, Whitten got permission in spring 2017 to turn the space into a working garden, where he planted kale, collard and mustard greens, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, leeks, shallots, and eggplants.

“The objective was to provide food to the food pantries, St. Vincent’s in Reno and St. Paul’s in Sparks. I wanted to grow things that could be easily processed in these food pantries,” Whitten explains. “We also have given fresh vegetables to those who live in parks. A fresh tomato is something we take for granted. We give it to them, and they really enjoy it.”

After a second successful season at the garden in 2018 and with interest growing from the Northern Nevada community, Whitten decided to form the nonprofit Soulful Seeds to support his endeavors.

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Earstin Whitten and his wife, Dee, tend to the garden they established behind Saint Mary’s Medical Center in Reno

“The nonprofit gives people the opportunity to contribute funding-wise, to contribute supplies, and to contribute their time,” he says.

Though access to fresh produce is something most people don’t think twice about, for many Reno-Tahoe residents, non-canned fruits and vegetables are a luxury.

Every year St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Sparks serves an estimated 22,000 food-insecure individuals and senior citizens through its food pantry and mobile food program.

“It is a blessing for us to be able to have those fresh items,” says Barbara Monroy, president of St. Paul’s food pantry. “Our senior citizens and regular patrons are not getting the healthy food that they need, so for them to be able to have that rich nutrition from the fresh produce is so important.”

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Earstin Whitten and his wife, Dee, tend to the garden they established behind Saint Mary’s Medical Center in Reno

Last summer, St. Paul’s was inspired to operate its own small garden behind the church, too.

“We had green tomatoes, and there was a patron who asked if he could have some since his wife’s favorite dish was fried green tomatoes,” Monroy recalls. “He came back a week later with tears in his eyes and said it was such a special thing for him to be able to do that for her.”

To donate, volunteer, or learn more about Soulful Seeds, visit Soulful-seeds.com.

Claire McArthur is a freelance writer who admires people such as Earstin Whitten who use their passions to help others. You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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