As the cost of food and fuel rises each year, donations to food banks are in short supply. Few people know that Marra Farm, a 4-acre parcel of urban farmland in the South Park neighborhood, harvests more than 12,000 pounds of produce each year for local food banks, making it a critical life line for...

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Many people try to avoid eating their vegetables.

That won’t be the case today at Marra Farm, a four-acre plot of land in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. Few know the urban farmland exists, but gardeners, community members, staff and volunteers at the farm will gather today at 1 p.m. to sample veggies and other snacks, tour the farm and celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lettuce Link.

A program within the nonprofit Solid Ground, Lettuce Link harvests more than 12,000 pounds of produce a year for local food banks, making Marra Farm a critical lifeline for those who depend on it.

Produce from Lettuce Link’s one-acre plot at Marra Farm is distributed throughout Seattle’s emergency food system.

“The idea behind Lettuce Link is that people should take care of their own communities,” said Mike Buchman, community manager for Solid Ground. “I grow food in my backyard, but I can’t eat all of the zucchini I grow. So why not share it with someone who needs it?”

As the cost of food and fuel rises, donations to food banks have been in short supply. Many food banks have seen a sharp increase in the number of families who walk through their doors, said Paige Collins, manager of Providence Regina House, a food and clothing bank in South Park.

“Even on a surprisingly crazy week, we used to get maybe 135 families, and we’d be so exhausted,” she said. Now, the food bank serves 250 families a week on average, she said.

“It’s the economy and the fuel costs,” she said. “People are having a heck of a time filling up their tanks, and more and more it’s the middle-class families who are struggling to make ends meet.”

On Saturdays, most of those 250 families show up in the span of 2 ½ hours — when the food bank serves fresh produce from Marra Farm, she said.

“We love [Lettuce Link]. They show up and it’s like magic,” Collins said. “The demand for food in general has gone up … we just need every last bit of food we can get our hands on, and this is as good as it gets.”

Lettuce Link volunteers also educate families about vegetables they might not be familiar with, she said, since many of the food bank’s clients come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Lettuce Link has grown exponentially since its start, said Seattle farmer Sue McGann, Solid Ground’s Marra Farm coordinator. Few schoolkids used to come to the farm to learn about nutrition, she said, and only one bed was used to grow about 2,000 pounds of produce. Now more than 300 kids from the community volunteer and visit the farm each year.

Lettuce Link coordinates several other efforts to squash hunger in the community. One program provides families with seeds and the know-how to start growing their own vegetables, and another coordinates efforts with P-patch and individual gardeners to donate extra produce to food banks (see box).

Amid this summer’s tomato recall and last year’s spinach recall — both were suspects in salmonella outbreaks — people are eager to learn how to grow their own vegetables so they can gain more control over what they eat, McGann said.

“There’s more and more interest because of the cost of food,” McGann said. “People are freaked out over the cost of food and where their food is coming from.”

The rise of fuel has affected Lettuce Link in other ways, said Michelle Bates-Benetua, program manager of Lettuce Link.

“This is the first year that our volunteers are taking us up on the offer to reimburse their mileage in coming here,” she said.

Arla Shephard: 206-515-5632 or ashephard@seattletimes.com