With frigid temps keeping us bundled in our winter warmest, spring visions of picnicking on the National Mall remain as yet mere fantasy. But there is new growth taking root right here in the DC area and that’s no basket of baloney sandwiches.

You may know that Bread for the City is on the front lines of providing food, clothing, medical care, legal aid and social services to Washington’s most vulnerable residents. Did you know that it also runs an organic orchard? City Orchard is located on 2.75 acres in nearby Beltsville, MD and is the largest agricultural project managed by a food pantry nationwide. It’s just one mile from Ikea and more accessible than many other local farms, but you feel like you’re in the country. Beautiful, wooded, calm.

Sharon Feuer Gruber, nutrition consultant for Bread for the City, and Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees, co-conceived the project to address the high cost of providing fresh fruit to the hungry, and simultaneously to serve as a model for using urban agriculture to do so. In an admirable cooperative effort, the University of the District of Columbia generously lent the property, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant covering start-up costs was approved in November and City Orchard was cultivated in April. Talk about fast growth!

Barring a major frost, the orchard is expected to yield upwards of 40,000 pounds of fresh fruit by 2014, all of which will be distributed to DC residents in need through Bread for the City’s two food pantry locations. Staff and clients, working side-by-side, have already harvested close to 1000 pounds of edible cover crop such as daikon radish, planted to keep the soil healthy through the winter months and beyond. For what to do with all that radish, also in grocery produce sections these days, check out the recipe for Crunchy Radish Salad (below).

In addition to harvesting, Bread for the City clients have been involved in orchard installation and maintenance. In some cases, clients have offered invaluable expertise learned through past professional experiences. An empowering effort for all involved.

City Orchard is providing new opportunities for low-income DC residents to gain access to fresh and local produce. For some, the project will provide a first encounter with common fruits too expensive for them to buy in grocery stores. Imagine tasting a blueberry, blackberry, strawberry or Asian pear for the very first time!

It’s cold out there, but all is not dormant. City Orchard is growing and should prompt us all to consider how we can foster a smarter food system and take better care of our neighbors in need. The promise of spring’s renewal is nigh, and the possibility of a better life is already upon us.