Church garden cultivates beds, beauty and community

The Sacramento BeeJuly 14, 2014 

Patrick Powers held up three or four carrots he'd just pulled out of the soil. Before he started gardening, numerous people or things might have touched those carrots before they reached his mouth: farmers, farmworkers, pesticides, food handlers, grocers � all part of a system of efficient food-processing that he had some familiarity with working in the restaurant industry for 35 years.

Now, it's straight from the ground to his plate, a feeling he says he can't describe.

"It's fun being a farmer," he said.

Patrick rents a plot for $40 a year at Redeemer's Field, a year-old community garden on land owned by the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Sacramento, Calif.

The project, which broke ground in March of last year, transformed an empty church lot into a source of healthful and affordable food for community members.

The value of a community garden is clear, said Bill Maynard, who has helped build community gardens around Sacramento for 20 years and works as the community garden coordinator for Sacramento's Department of Parks and Recreation.

"It's about bringing the community in and showing they have worth," he said. Maynard advised the church throughout the construction process, from planning to financing and connecting the church with volunteers.

At Redeemer's Field, there are 20 occupied beds growing anything and everything, from bulbous watermelon and heirloom tomatoes to cinnamon basil and zucchini squash. Red grapevines hug one side of a bordering chain link fence, and a line of burgeoning fruit trees welcomes visitors near the entrance gate, open at all hours of the day. At the center lies a bed of proud sunflowers raised by a member who lives in an apartment across the street.

The garden's construction required many hands, including non-church members, neighbors and community service organizations such as AmeriCorps to till the soil, pave walkways and build wooden box plots. With much of the work done, the project is still expanding: A picnic bench area is planned to give visitors a proper place to sit.

The farm-to-fork movement isn't central to the mission of the church, which has held services at the site for 60 years, said Lisa Mulz, a member of the congregation who helped build the garden.

It's more about addressing hunger in the area. A half-mile west of the garden is one of 22 Sacramento "food deserts," neighborhoods whose residents have little access to healthful and affordable food.

Most garden members live in a ZIP code where nearly one-quarter of residents live below the poverty line, according to a 2012 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income is 35 percent lower than the state average, and around half the residents rent apartments and don't have the space to grow their own food.

A little over $3 a month out of his pocket for the plot results in a major savings for Powers, 68, who gets as much as 40 percent of his food out of the garden. He supplements the rest with goods from the farmers market.

"It helps," he said. "I don't have to go the grocery store as much."

The harvest benefits more than just members. Two plots are designated for food to be donated by the church, and yields from those plots are periodically given to a food pantry.

The garden is yielding more than vegetables and food security, said Ann Carlson, a garden coordinator.

A natural gallery for visitors and passers-by, children and parents at the on-site preschool take a gander before class, and neighbors stop by while waiting for a bus.

"It's fun for them to watch things grow," Mulz said.

For others, taking a stroll through the garden can be therapeutic. Jason Bense, a pastor at Our Redeemer, will often catch attendees of one of the church's alcohol support groups touring garden walkways.

One garden worker related how a woman one day pulled up to the church to say she was thankful that her son, a war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, now had a venue to gather his thoughts.

"People need beauty as well as bread," said Mark Carlson, one of many garden volunteers and Anne's husband. "This garden can provide both of those."

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