Local church veggie gardens are an extension of compassion

What would this community be like if some churches were not growing vegetable gardens to benefit those less fortunate? It’s worth pondering. If you’re unaware of this growing movement in the faith community, please give it your consideration. Last year during one of my church visits, a man approached me to suggest I focus a column on this topic, and encourage the entire church community to participate. After digging into it, I’m convinced there are significant benefits for everyone doing so from the churches, gardeners, local charities and other recipients of fresh locally-grown produce.

The first garden I noticed was at Turnagain United Methodist Church. Planted on the west side of the church and nicely tended, it produces a relatively bountiful harvest of produce for its size. Pastor Bob Smith shared some details about their garden. Managed by a gardens committee, with congregational help, it produced 300 pounds of produce last year for Bean’s Café and the Downtown Soup Kitchen. They call it the “Jesus Food” garden and are exploring expanding it onto more church property. Smith recognizes the generosity of the participants, tying it directly “to the ministry and mission of the congregation. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the time it takes because they are always focused on the goal of helping feed others, including meals for Clare House, or food for FISH. The garden is just another extension of their compassion and drive to feed the hungry.”

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Café says, “We are so appreciative of the support of our local faith community. They help in so many ways but one significant way is through the donation of locally raised produce. Fresh, local grown foods are such a treat for our clients and provide a meaningful connection to our community.” Other local charity directors echo Lisa’s observations. Both Alan Budahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and Mike Miller, executive director of the Alaska Food Bank note the value of locally grown fresh produce to recipients of food items their organizations deliver. Alan and Mike are currently helping churches obtain grants to facilitate food growing by churches. It takes money to get started.

Churches involved with or evolving veggie growing

East Anchorage United Methodist Church

According to Pastor Karen Dammann, EAUMC makes gardening plots available to residents in the neighborhood who want to garden. Now in their third planting year, they have space for 124 4-by-8-foot plots but currently use just a fraction. They may have up to 50 in use this summer. No food goes to the local food banks yet, but they’re considering using some open plots to do so. They’re applying for a grant for moose fencing. Neighborhood children are encouraged to eat produce, such as green peas, grown for them. Julie Riley of the Cooperative Extension Service of UAF has provided guidance, staff training and resources for EAUMC.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

This prominent lower Hillside school has an annual “faith in action” project where outgoing fifth graders who will be incoming sixth graders in the fall, grow potatoes in plots at the school. They are tended during the summer and harvested at its end. Last year they delivered 90 pounds to Bean’s Cafe. The growing area was created by a scout who made it his Eagle Scout project. Before the potatoes are delivered, the students pray over them, take them to Bean’s and are given a tour.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Anchorage’s largest Episcopal church has just completed its first growing area for vegetables. According to Rector Michael Burke, they intend to donate the results to local food banks. St. Mary’s children were heavily involved in their creation.

Joy Lutheran Church

This Eagle River Church has just started their church garden. Pastor Martin Eldred says they intend to give their fresh produce to the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry where it is a highly requested item. The church received a small grant from their synod to start the garden.

St. John United Methodist Church

Growing their produce for the Downtown Soup Kitchen, this lower Hillside church will host Downtown Soup Kitchen board members on June 6 for a blessing of their garden.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — Alaska Synod

This group recently had their annual synod meeting where the theme was “HUNGER, The Fast I Chose” which focused on world hunger with an emphasis on solving hunger issues through the sharing of individual church involvement. According to local Synod Bishop Shelley Wickstrom, many of their churches are involved in gardening programs. Dr. Stephen Brown of UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service spoke with the group and addressed considerations in starting church gardens

Many local churches growing food for charity are not represented on this list, but their contributions are essential to their faith commitments to their neighbors in need.

Useful resources for church gardens

Some helpful resources to utilize in starting church gardens are listed below:

Dr. Stephen Brown, with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Palmer is an excellent resource and offers an excellent guide called the Community Garden Toolkit. His email is scbrown4@alaska.edu.

The Episcopal Church has an excellent webpage full of information about nine churches that started food-growing programs in their churches (see http://tinyurl.com/ofjvuwn).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America offers ELCA churches grants to develop food growing programs. For information contact Alan Budahl, Executive Director, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, 272-0643 lssa@gci.net.

“Why Every Church Should Plant a Garden…and How” is the title of a free pdf guide (tinyurl.com/mqnwg5w) made available by A Rocha USA

A local group called Yarducopia matches up yard owners with people who need space to garden to learn how to garden, build gardens, and co-garden — sow a community garden in patches across Anchorage! More information is available at yarducopia.org. They are eager to help faith-based groups too.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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