With ingenuity, creativity, and a touch of grit, this small North Carolina town cultivated a community garden project to produce healthy food for neighbors in need.
Several years ago, I was feeling frustrated. “There are so many problems,” I said to myself, “and there’s so much suffering in the world.” Worst of all, I felt that there was nothing I could do about it. Do you know that feeling? Even though I lived an environmentally conscientious life and donated money to worthy causes, I needed to take my own two hands and actually do something tactile to make a difference, no matter how small.
It was looking at my hands (well, the dirt on them, anyway) that spurred this thought: I know quite a bit about gardening — so why don’t I help start a community garden project in which people could grow food to give away? What could be a more tangible way to help others than growing fresh food for them?
Hunger is a significant problem. One in seven people in the United States relies on local food aid, and more than 14 percent live below the official poverty line. At least one in five children is at risk of hunger. Right where you live, people are going hungry. But food-aid agencies seldom share fresh, wholesome produce when it’s in season. Pretty much everything in food pantries comes in a can or a box. No wonder: Such items are inexpensive and they store well. Thinking of that industrially processed food, I only got more excited about my vision of growing fresh vegetables and giving them away. I knew my plan wouldn’t solve world hunger, but it would be something hands-on that would help right where I lived.
When I asked folks in my town of Fairview, North Carolina, what they thought of a community giving garden, enthusiasm spread faster than bees on clover. A lot of people besides me wanted a down-to-earth way to help. Before long, our urban community garden had an advisory group, a great piece of borrowed land for growing the garden, scads of generous donations — from a port-a-potty to a truckload of composted manure — and scores of people eager to pull stones and plant seeds.
We named our community garden project The Lord’s Acre after a local Great Depression effort in which people gave away what they grew on an acre to help neighbors in need.
Now that our urban community garden is in its eighth growing season, I’m proud to say that our volunteers have grown and given away more than 55 tons of organic produce to neighbors in need. Our beautiful garden has even spawned spin-off efforts, such as a weekly community meal, garden classes, new home gardens, and a program in which interested folks can give or take excess produce. We quickly learned that in addition to produce, The Lord’s Acre grows community.
If you’d like to set something like this up in your own community, you’ll first need to find other driven people who want to take part in the garden project. Your team’s first efforts will be organizing and planning. Create a core group and a steering committee that meets regularly, and designate one person as the main facilitator. Next, start asking some key questions. For instance, how many people will be involved, and what will their roles be? At The Lord’s Acre, we have a full-time garden manager, seasonal garden interns, and scores of volunteers. Also, what model of giving garden do you want to create? We give away everything we grow through local food agencies. In other models, everyone who works in the community garden gets a share of the harvest. Some groups help people grow gardens in their own backyards.
Likewise, you can garden in a slew of different ways. We use deep-dug raised beds, which build healthy soil and make for extremely high production in a limited space. Others use traditional row gardens or boxed beds.
Next, figure out how you’re going to share the food you grow. Contact local agencies to see what they need and what they’d be willing to take. Seek out groups that would welcome donations, such as a veterans center or women’s shelter, as well as food pantries. Grow what they can use.
Finally, research whether other giving gardens are already established in your area. You can learn from them and work with them. We’re all in this together!
Consider these factors before you break ground on your giving garden:
Land. You’re going to need someone to donate the use of good, arable land that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Preferably, choose a location that’s convenient for other growers to get to. Consider exploring whether a nursing home, school, park, church, or other organization would be willing to provide the land. If you can work under their auspices, that can also help with paperwork. Otherwise, you’ll probably need to incorporate as a nonprofit.
Water. Don’t garden where you don’t have on-site access to the water you’ll need for growing plants. We’ve seen gardens fail that try to get around this necessity by trucking water in.
Supplies. You’ll be amazed by your neighbors’ and local businesses’ generosity. Our urban community garden has gotten so many supplies — from fencing to seeds — through donations. People and businesses are quite generous when you personally ask them to fulfill a specific need. It’s incredibly gratifying to see. Sometimes I think the best thing The Lord’s Acre does is make it easy for others to help. So many folks want to assist others, but they sometimes just don’t know how. Indeed, that’s how our own garden grew from a one-person idea to a project that hundreds of people are now involved in, and that last year grew more than 12 tons of fresh produce on just under an acre of land.
For me, the surprising reward of this whole community garden project has been the joy of working with others. The gratitude individuals express for our vegetables is a joy to behold. But food donations don’t solve poverty. They’re a Band-Aid, but not a solution. The real solutions come, one little bit at a time, from people working together and getting to know each other, so that eventually we’re all neighbors helping each other. There’s not a single volunteer at The Lord’s Acre who doesn’t feel they receive as much as they give, who doesn’t appreciate the chance to work together and grow friendships as well as food.
The Lord’s Acre has an interesting connection to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Susan Sides (our garden manager), Franklin Sides (Susan’s husband), and I (the founder) all worked for the magazine back in the 1980s. I was the assistant editor/garden editor, and Susan and Franklin were the magazine’s staff gardeners. Susan and Franklin gardened at the long-since-defunct MOTHER EARTH NEWS Eco-Village and, later, in a smaller garden that provided editorial material.
When the steering committee for The Lord’s Acre interviewed candidates for our garden manager, it quickly became obvious to everyone that Susan was the perfect choice. She’s not only an incredible gardener, but an incredible person, as well. Plus, Franklin’s dedication, friendliness, and creative handyman talents are a local legend. It’s been an honor to work with them again. As Susan puts it, “Relationships are the primary crop in gardens that give away food. And love is the currency.”