Q&A: Puwen Lee looks back on service

Puwen Lee is retiring as associate director of programs and manager of the Plot Against Hunger initiative for the Arlington Food Assistance Center, or AFAC. She is shown with lettuce grown at a Plot Against Hunger location at Arlington Central Library.

The Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) recently announced the retirement of Puwen Lee, who began with the organization 13 years ago and has most recently served as associate director of programs and manager of the Plot Against Hunger initiative, which through the years has resulted in more than 600,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables being donated to support families in need across the county.

Lee “has, through her leadership and stewardship of volunteers, helped create an atmosphere of generosity, community and a deep care for all our families, and has become a hallmark of all that AFAC does,” the organization’s executive director, Charles Meng, said in announcing her retirement.

The Sun Gazette recently caught up with Lee for a question-and-answer session:

What was your original impetus for volunteering at AFAC, and what led you to make the decision to move into a staff position?

I was working part-time at George Washington University and needed something “more” in my life. Our daughter was older and didn’t need as much of my time and attention. As I remember it, I was stopped at a light at the intersection of Wilson and Glebe in Ballston, and a white AFAC cargo van stopped beside me. It said “Feeding Our Neighbors in Need – To Volunteer, Call (703) 845-8486.” I had never heard about AFAC before, but was intrigued and jotted the number down, went home and called.

Nancy Cude, the volunteer coordinator at the time, invited me down to help with distribution that same day. I loved it – the volunteers and the work, and became part of the Wednesday-morning distribution team. 

About a year later, a part-time position opened up at AFAC, and I weighed the benefits of working at something very hands-on that directly benefited the community. It was an easy decision.

Think back to the start of the Plot Against Hunger initiative. What were the goals at the beginning, and do you think they have been fulfilled or are on the way to being fulfilled? And what have been the biggest obstacles?

Our goal was very simple in the beginning: to replace the frozen vegetables on the AFAC menu with fresh vegetables, and to procure vegetables from as many sources as possible.

We quickly identified three sources that were immediately accessible to AFAC: local farmers markets; gleaning (harvesting) at local farms and orchards; and encouraging local gardeners to start gardens to “grow a row” for AFAC. 

Farmers’-market vendors have been very generous to us, and AFAC’s volunteer department has figured out the logistics. Depending on the year, markets have donated up to 100,000 pounds to us.

For gleaning, we have relied mostly on the work of large gleaning organizations such as MAGNET (Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network), SOSA (Society of St. Andrews), and farms such as the new non-profit JK Moving Community Farm in Purcellville, that set up the events and invite us to bring volunteers to help with harvests. We’ve also set up gleaning events on our own with smaller farms, which require a few more steps, but which are absolutely satisfying. In a good morning’s work, we can bring back thousands of pounds of donated produce and know that we have helped prevent food from being wasted.

In the case of the third source, Arlington gardeners (at organizations and in residential yards), have been tremendously generous with their time and efforts.

I see this third area as being a true community-builder. When an elementary-school student grows and gives produce to AFAC, they learn not only how a plant grows, but also how to share; when churches plant seeds and bring their harvests to us, they often give thanks for the earth’s bounty; when we garden at Central Library, library patrons stop constantly to tell gardeners about their own experiences when they used to have space to garden, or share recipes with us.

This year, despite the weather, the large garden at St. Andrew’s has topped 3,000 pounds of produce donations; the garden at 2060 South Walter Reed Drive is near 1,800 pounds; and Sue Howell, an incredibly gifted gardener, has grown 1,500 pounds for us.

I’ve always said that “gardeners are generous by nature” – I think sometimes it is because they feel nature’s generosity.

The biggest obstacles have been keeping produce fresh, and educating staff and volunteers. (Sometimes, I believe, volunteers mistakenly think that we are like a grocery store where everything needs to look perfect and, if ugly, needs to go into the compost bin.)

As AFAC has grown, we have been able to extend the availability of fresh produce for clients to 12 months. In the winter months, this is through purchases from wholesalers. 

I’m grateful to the AFAC board and staff for recognizing the importance of fresh produce to our clients’ health, and grateful to donors (farmers and gardeners) and volunteers who support that part of AFAC’s mission.

One spin-off from the Plot program is AFAC’s cooking-and-nutrition program that was started with a grant from Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. That program brings knowledge about not only what clients can select from our grocery shelves (by offering tastes of dishes prepared by volunteer cooks), but also goes to off-site distribution centers and summer camps to teach parents and children about the effects of good nutrition on health.

What are some of the most creative ways Plot Against Hunger locations have been shoehorned into this increasingly urbanized community?

If you go around Arlington, you’ll see small gardens tucked in beside churches (Clarendon Presbyterian and St. George’s Episcopal) that grow hundreds of pounds for AFAC each year.

At Arlington Presbyterian Church, we were allowed a temporary space to garden as the church prepared for the sale of the property to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing for the building of Gilliam Place. At that site, the straw bale gardening technique proved to be the quickest and most productive method of getting a garden in, in one season, without needing to go through soil testing or remediation.

At Clarendon Methodist Church and at Culpepper Garden, vegetables are harvested immediately by gardeners and go straight to the AFAC grocery distribution held at each site – you can’t get any fresher than that!

The Central Library garden was started by volunteer Don Weber and AFAC volunteers in 2010, when the library invited Wendell Berry and Novella Carpenter to read for an “Arlington Reads, Arlington Grows” program. It flourished with the encouragement of librarians Margaret Brown and Lynn Christianson – and with the input of many volunteers.

The library invited us to start a garden in a raised bed that contained what was perhaps a 1980s-landscaper’s idea of the ideal plant: a thick bed of liriope.  Our volunteers spent days pulling it out (if you want a workout, that’s a good way to lose a few pounds). I remember there was incredible excitement among Plot volunteers as we worked on the project to transform the space. The children’s librarians even brought the children outside for a story hour as we worked. 

One fun memory I’d like to recount is a group of volunteers moving 5 cubic yards of purchased compost into the bed one Sunday afternoon. There were perhaps 10 of us, everyone bringing shovels and wheelbarrows from home. The compost had been delivered to the only spot available in the parking lot, on the far side by 10th Street. As we worked, steadily loading and wheeling the compost across the lot, I heard a different sound, and looked up to see Lynn Kristianson (who handled interlibrary loans), coming over with a rattling shelving cart with two 5-gallon buckets atop.

Through the years, the garden has been planted with a huge variety of vegetables and flowers. For example, this year, peanuts were added into the mix, along with a variety of hot peppers, malabar spinach and Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia). The garden has become a place where AFAC and Master Gardeners have held 30 garden talks each year since 2012; a place where patrons can stop to observe how to grow vegetables in tight urban spaces (with vertical structures and in containers), and a place where parents can show children how vegetables grow.

We often think that there isn’t much space to garden in Arlington, but there are places near buildings (such as the garden at the American Legion which runs alongside Casual Adventure), and at the edges of playing fields, which can provide ample space for a knowledgeable gardener to grow crops successfully.

Are there any specific types of produce, etc., that seem to outperform the others in Arlington? Well, it really depends on Mother Nature (rain, drought, heat, cold, pests, diseases), the soil and a gardener’s knowledge. At the Walter Reed Garden, under volunteer Catherine Connor’s direction, they have successfully grown spinach through the winter and beds with hundreds of heads romaine lettuce during the spring; planted excellent turnips and beets, beans, tomatoes, a variety of peppers and squash.

The HARDEST things to grow in our climate, if they aren’t monitored, are cucumbers and collards, because of striped cucumber beetles that spread wilt and white flies that appear in the hotter months. But even there, choosing a good variety, and knowing the timing for planting and harvest, can make a difference.

You were a member of the Urban Agriculture Task Force. Do you think it served an important purpose, and is the community moving in the right direction when it comes to overall urban agriculture?

I hope it did. I would have liked to have a larger discussion at the time about the overall “foodshed” that serves our region. I’m not sure we’ve tackled the question of what happens when we are no longer able to transport food from California, Colorado or Florida. What is the safety net when it comes to regional food?

Perhaps this discussion can be taken up by the recently established non-profit FOUA (Friends of Urban Agriculture) which was a spin-off from the task force.

Where would you like to see AFAC, and Plot Against Hunger, be in 10 years’ time?

I hope AFAC can maintain and increase the variety of healthy offerings that clients receive and move away from the sweet offerings with empty calories.

A few ideas:

• For Plot Against Hunger, it would be wonderful to find a way for clients to garden where they live, or be able to work in community-garden spaces at reduced rates.

• Bring clients out on harvesting trips, not only so they can share the harvest, but also be able to get out into the countryside.

• Expand on some of the events we’ve set up with clients as part of the Wednesday library garden-talk series. In those, we’ve had a few public programs with clients, volunteers and staff participating, where everyone makes a dish, shares a recipe (based on a theme such as “Crops from the New World” or “Waste Not, Want Not”), and talks about how and why they have chosen that specific recipe, and the context of that dish within their culture’s food and agriculture.

• Set up a low-cost grocery store that serves anyone in Arlington who chooses to shop there – such as those who are living paycheck-to-paycheck or living on a fixed income, or are thrifty – so they can have a place where they can purchase basic staple items with plenty of fresh produce options.


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