Gardens rooted in faith feed the hungry

They’re small town gardens with a big purpose: to feed local families who can't afford fresh produce.

These “faith-gardens” are popping up all over town, with churches starting them but then relying on volunteers to take care of the plants.

One, the Faith and Grace Garden, was planted in between two churches, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church. It started out as a small patch over 15 years ago, but now takes up a whole plot of land.

The garden coordinator, Tim Goldman, said they usually have more volunteers than they have jobs in the garden. He believes that is because people feel a special connection when they’re working with the soil.

"We generally think that if you bring people out into creation, that they will feel closer to God,” said Goldman.

Students, members of a dozen of nearby churches and temples, and local organizations get their hands dirty all summer. They plant vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, asparagus, and peppers, along with sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and corn.

Goldman said the peppers are the most popular item because many of the families who receive the produce are Latino or Bosnian and enjoy being able to use them in cooking.

"You can be a city-slicker like me and still get your hands dirty and do a good job. And feel like you're adding total value to the community,” said Amy Luebbert, a volunteer with Oxfam America. The organization has been working in the garden for the past three years.

The produce will be harvested throughout the summer. Goldman said he hopes that by the end, over 16,000 pounds of produce will be donated to area food pantries. In 2012 they donated 16,500 pounds and due to a drought in 2013 only 11,500 pounds. But a new irrigation system this year should ensure another drought won't ruin crops.

West Des Moines Human Services is one food pantry that gets produce throughout the summer from the faith gardens. The director, Althea Holcomb, said its clients are happy to have fresh rather than canned food.

“The need to buy the most economical food doesn't allow you to buy fresh typically so the opportunity to get fresh is exponentially better,” said Holcomb.

“I think they're really working hard to fill the need, they're working hard to provide variety, and they're doing a great job,” Holcomb said of the gardens.

While the garden is rooted in faith, Goldman said they don't force religion on anyone. "We aren't out here to espouse any particular religion, it's just everybody working together for the common good,” Goldman said.