On Hilltop, the Food is Free Project looks for a new home. | Northwest

The Food is Free Tacoma Project has grown by leaps and bounds since it was launched more than five years ago. What originally started at David Thompson’s South End home has blossomed into a grassroots initiative with more than 30 participating gardens — and dozens of tables across Tacoma where people can turn to for free, locally grown fruit and produce.

Even if you’ve never heard of the nonprofit effort, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a raised bed it has helped to inspire or a sign in your neighborhood.

One of the project’s busiest tables is on Hilltop, in front of the duplex on South Sheridan Avenue that Thompson now shares with his wife, Ursula. Together, the couple regularly distributes as much as 400 pounds of produce every day, they told The News Tribune, most recently with plums harvested at a local orchard before they went to waste.

Like the project itself, Ursula Thompson said, the idea behind the table is to reduce food insecurity, build community and create a sustainable food chain that cuts down on the amount of food going into landfills. Most importantly, the goal is to provide access to fresh produce in areas in desperate need of it.

Soon, there will be a big change for the Food is Free Project — at least on Hilltop. The owner of the duplex Thompson rents, 72-year-old Sara Brown, has asked her to significantly scale back the South Sheridan operation in hopes of reducing the amount of space it’s taking up in the yard and the amount of traffic it generates.

Brown told The News Tribune that she appreciates and supports what the Food is Free Project is trying to accomplish, but having such a large-scale effort run in front of her property is more than she bargained for.

For a small-time duplex landlord with another tenant to consider, it’s a reasonable request. But for Thompson — who has rented from Brown for roughly four years and now serves as Food is Free Tacoma’s director of operations — it has created an unexpected new challenge.

Thompson said she plans to honor her landlord’s desires, but that also means finding a new location to distribute the crates and crates of food that regularly fly off the table in front of her home.

While there are many Food is Free Project tables across the city, none have been used more than this one — and none are prepared to take on the additional load, she said.

On Thursday, Thompson said the experience — which initially inspired an impassioned social media post asking for help and public support — has made her realize that running such a sizable operation out of a small residential location is untenable.

The question now is: What comes next? In a city known for its support of community-led efforts and small ideas turned big, we should all hope she finds an answer soon.

Maybe there’s a vacant storefront that can be used, or a local church or food bank with space to share. Or, maybe the city can step in and lend a hand.

Where there’s a will there’s a way, Thompson believes.

“We would love to have a location where we can do these types of distributions, and not have any issues with the neighbors or landlord,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to feed people.”

By that measure — and plenty of others — what has transpired in front of Thompson’s Hilltop home is a smashing success. Many, like Eli Wong — who works the night shift at a Tacoma hospital and said she regularly visits the Food is Free Project table on South Sheridan on her way home from work — have come to cherish it.

Wong said her recent experience as a working student — while earning her nursing degree — provided a lesson on how expensive and out-of-reach fresh, local produce can be.

While she now has a good-paying job, she said the table in front of Thompson’s home has allowed her to be part of something bigger and support a movement she firmly believes in. Most of the food she takes from the tables these days she distributes to several of her elderly, largely home-bound neighbors, she said.

Once the daily offerings diminish, Wong said, she’s not sure what she’ll do. She loves supporting local gardeners and will miss the opportunity it provides to connect with those around her.

She’s hoping that a new location will be identified — somehow, some way.

“For me, I would be very, very sad to see that table go away, and I think part of my identity would also be crushed and diminished,” Wong said. “I really don’t want to see that happen.”

For Thompson and the Food is Free Tacoma Project, it’s just the latest hurdle to clear for an upstart organization that, in many ways, has already exceeded expectations. In addition to tables spread across the city, the nonprofit helps to distribute free produce every Sunday at several local parks.

Through successful grant writing, the project has helped to build new gardens throughout Tacoma. Thompson said the effort serves a wide variety of residents, from people experiencing homelessness to those who simply want an alternative to chain grocery stores and corporate agriculture practices.

While being forced to find a new location has thrown her for a loop, Thompson said she remains optimistic about the future of the Food is Free Project and what it can accomplish.

Whatever happens, this much seems certain:

The resource that the Food is Free Project has provided on Hilltop would be a shame to lose.

“It worries me,” Thompson said. “We need a place that’s not a home, where we can give away large quantities of food.”

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