Food pantries and homeless shelters are reaping the benefits of church-organized community gardens across the Florida Conference. Representatives of three United Methodist churches with gardens say the ministry has made their congregations more viable in their communities.
At Shores UMC, St. Augustine, Jeffrey Strait will spend Labor Day clearing plots at the church’s community garden and getting things ready for other gardeners to start digging and planting. This fall marks the beginning of the garden’s fourth year, thanks to a successful grant application that Strait, a church member for more than 20 years, wrote in 2010.
Strait grew up watching his father tend a family garden. He saw an opportunity for something similar on the church property.
“The garden plots are where a new sanctuary is supposed to be built someday,” he says. “I asked [the trustees], ‘Why don’t we do something with this land until we do build?’”
When Shores UMC received the $2,500 grant, Strait and a friend matched it with their own money, which enabled them to bring in truckloads of soil, build raised boxes and run an irrigation system. The 1,000-square-foot garden contains five 10- by 20-foot plots, one of which is designated strictly for donations to nonprofits. Volunteers who tend the other four plots can keep some of their harvest but must donate a portion to a nonprofit organization of their choice.
Strait gives 90 percent of what he grows to the St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in St. Augustine. Other gardeners donate to the Council on Aging and local food pantries.
“When I pull up in my truck, the homeless guys run out to meet me and help carry produce in,” Strait says. “The St. Francis House is very appreciative. They don’t have enough food and support. In the summertime, homeless kids are there, so by the time fall comes around, they are almost out of food.”
The men at St. Francis House call Strait the “greens guy” because he comes loaded with collards, lettuce and cabbage in the fall. After the first frost next winter, the gardeners will plant tomatoes, peppers and peas for a spring harvest.
“We tried to plant all year round, but we spent so much time battling bugs and fungus in the summer that it was not worth it,” he says.
Nevertheless, church members consider the garden even when the plots are dormant. A core group of women supports Strait’s goal of using organic growing techniques.
“They put food scraps in kitchen crocks lined with biodegradable bags and then dump those bags into our mulch bin,” he says. “We have some very rich soil.”
Also committed to organic gardening is Cason UMC, Delray Beach, which has supplied nearly 4,000 pounds of produce to Caring Kitchen of Delray Beach since the garden started in 2008. Coordinators Lori Robbins and Candy Evans plan to kick off the fall planting season with a seed workshop.
“We have a master gardener who advises everyone how to grow organically,” Robbins says.
The idea for Cason’s community garden began in 2007 during Florida’s economic downturn that resulted in many people losing jobs. Robbins and Evans were brainstorming ideas to make the church more viable.
“Our church was really struggling with finances and membership,” remembers Robbins. “We almost closed our doors.”
The women noticed unused property behind the church. They knew nutrition and healthy eating were hot topics, so they presented the idea for a community garden and the congregation got behind them.
“We received donations of garden equipment, someone lent a tiller for free, and our youth group even got involved,” Robbins says.
Each year, about 40 gardeners rent plots at $65 for a 4- by 12-plot or $85 for a 4- by 28-foot plot. The money covers the water bill, mulch and other garden expenses. Gardeners must donate at least 10 percent of their harvest to Caring Kitchen, which provides meals to the homeless.
The produce – including lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, collards, kale, potatoes, carrots, herbs, celery and green beans – is collected at the church. Volunteers take it to Caring Kitchen once a week.
“Name the produce and we get it from Cason,” says Nadege Joliecoeur, program director for Caring Kitchen. “The donations mean everything to us. There have been times when we didn’t have money in the budget to buy extra food, and Cason came through. Whatever Cason provides, it always seems to come at the right time.”
Joliecoeur says the kitchen serves more than 1,000 meals a month to those most at risk in the community. Some of the yield from the Cason garden also goes into meals delivered to more than 50 homebound residents, mostly seniors.
Watching the garden double in size has been rewarding for Robbins and Evans, who have traveled around the state talking to others about community gardens.
“Gardens bring people closer to Mother Earth and make them think about where their food comes from,” Evans says.
Meanwhile, Floral City UMC in central Florida is demonstrating that big ideas can start small. Using just a quarter-acre of land, volunteers have grown and donated 2,200 pounds of produce to needy families in the past two years.
O.C. Cook, garden committee chairperson, says volunteers are debating whether to plant this fall.
“It’s pretty intensive work, and we’re not sure we can do two gardens a year,” says Cook, who worked with master gardener Skip LaBelle to create the garden. “The biggest job is planting, and we need eight to 10 people for that. We also need volunteers who can water every day and others to handle distribution. But people are excited about this garden.”
Pastor Mary Gestrich believes the garden has created new relationships and expanded the church’s outreach.
“Seeing the smiles on the volunteers’ faces tells us we are doing the right thing,” the pastor says. “Their energy has been contagious.”
The garden has produced not only food but also awareness about healthier eating.
“We live in an area where it’s easier to buy bad food cheap, like in convenience stores,” explains Gestrich. “We’ve started handing out recipes with the produce.”
Cook says 47 families benefited from the 2015 harvest. Anyone in need is invited to come to the church on distribution days, which are publicized by area churches and nonprofit agencies.
This past spring, volunteers planted sunflowers at the end of each row. The large blooms were sold and the proceeds used for garden supplies. The smaller ones went to shut-ins, along with soup made using produce from the church garden.
“We are amazed at comments we get about the garden,” Cook says. “Some people have started coming to church because of it. They believe it’s the kind of thing churches should be doing.”
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.