HUNGER ACTION: Gardens offer out-of-the-box benefits




“I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was homeless and you gave me a room; I was shivering and you gave me clothes; I was sick and you stopped to visit; I was in prison and you came to me. … Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36; 40, The Message)

When Yvette Carter first showed up at St. Paul UMC in Largo four years ago, she needed food for herself and two children. And she was hungry in ways she did not realize.

“When I came here, I was homeless, and I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship. I came here without hope and with no faith,” Carter recalled.

“I wouldn’t speak. I wouldn’t look people in the eye because I was so ashamed.” 

Garden of Hope at St. Paul UMC

A volunteer works in the Garden of Hope at St. Paul UMC, Largo.

At that time, St. Paul volunteers were handing out food and other kinds of assistance from a small room on the church campus.

Four years later, the church has a dedicated food pantry, clothes closet and community garden, called the Garden of Hope.
 
During the first eight months of 2012, about 9,800 people sought aid there, about a third of them children.

And Carter is in charge of it all, overseeing a feeding program called Open Arms Ministries.

Like the garden she and other volunteers started a year ago, she is flourishing.

“The first cabbage, it was so huge,” Carter said. “You knew God had to have his hand in this.”

Carter and others who start community gardens typically want to provide fresh produce, an important supplement to boxed and canned foods that people in need receive at food pantries. It’s a labor of Christian love for volunteers or church staff to till the soil, plant the seeds and harvest the crops to give to others.

Often, however, the gardeners find the Christian camaraderie and spiritual growth that result from tending their projects surpass the thrill of the harvest.

Parkway UMC The Fruitful Field
Volunteers and staff work in The Fruitful Field, a community garden at Parkway UMC, Pompano Beach.

That has been the case in Pompano Beach, where Parkway UMC devoted its back field to growing food, beginning in October 2010. The congregation named its community garden The Fruitful Field and dedicated staff and other resources to harvesting produce for the needy.

“Through our community garden, the people who tend the garden and the people who benefit from it bless each other back and forth,” said Rev. Jim Walling, Parkway’s pastor.

“It has fostered a sense of community and expanded to much bigger than was envisioned.”

Parkway’s garden yields at least 100 pounds of fresh vegetables each month during the growing season, enough to share with food pantries of sister churches in the area, said Kevin “Flavio” Sloat, the garden’s executive director.

Likewise at Grace Church, North Fort Myers campus, where members transformed a corner of the church parking lot into a community garden by planting the first seedlings last February.

“The garden was started as a result of wanting to help supplement our food outreach ministry with produce and to help people move from aid to advancement,” said Patti Nemazie, director of Reach and Send Ministries at the church. 

Produce from Grace Community Garden
Grace UMC's community garden yields produce and wildflowers for use in church outreach.

And the harvest has been good: peppers, collard and mustard greens, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, cabbage, yellow squash and grapes. In addition, the garden has produced beautiful wildflowers that volunteers take when they visit shut-ins who can’t get to church for worship.

But representatives of all three churches say the gardens provide more than food for the body. Young people in pursuit of scholarships or satisfying court orders have logged community service hours in the gardens.

At St. Paul, fencing the garden is a Boy Scout project, helping a young man fulfill the requirements for scouting’s Eagle award.

At Parkway, congregation and community members often mingle together on weekend workdays, trading advice and swapping seeds. Key to that community-building is the church’s willingness to rent plots to nearby families who wish to supplement their food sources or who like to garden and don’t have enough yard at home.

“We have a family that home-schools their children, so they use the rental plot to teach botany as they work to maintain it,” Walling said.

At Grace, the garden has provided Fred Bucher, a retiree and church volunteer who tends to the beds on weekdays, some solace in the face of tragedy. 

Grace UMC dug a well in August to irrigate the church's community garden.
Grace Church near Fort Myers had a well dug to irrigate a community garden developed in a corner of the church parking lot.

“[It’s} my own little sanctuary, my quiet time pulling weeds,” Bucher said. “Sometimes I sit up on the picnic table and think about how much Grace Church has meant to me. Five years ago, when my son was murdered, the church really reached out to me and my family and this garden is my way of giving back and helping others in need.”

Walling said it’s difficult to track whether the community garden has attracted membership for Parkway, but it has contributed to a sense of community support.

“A very small number of people that learned about us from the garden may actually now attend the church,” he said. “But we have built a strong community of Methodists, Christians, ecology-minded people and gardeners, all because we invited them to share in the fruits of a garden.”

At St. Paul, where volunteers stand ready to listen to and pray for people in need, Carter has no doubt that the garden touches others in the name of Christ.

“A lot of people who come here come without faith and hope,” Carter said. “You want them to leave our door knowing that God loves them and God is with them.

“A lot of people are lost and they are looking for the Lord,” she added. “We want to lead them to the Lord.” 

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