From a mustard seed: Churches get gardening to fight hometown hunger
June Johnson’s foray into the world of gardening began in the dead of winter. A sunny January day last year inspired her to venture outside, and her walk brought her to the path behind Maggie Valley United Methodist Church and the grassy lawn surrounding it. The sight made her pause.
“Having grown up around farming, I thought, ‘Why don’t they have a church garden?’ and roamed into the back of the church,” recalled Johnson, a retired teacher and native of Haywood County.
During her roaming she bumped into Erma Bond, the church’s associate minister, and she pitched her garden idea.
Bond liked the plan — the church already ran a food pantry and fed a hot meal to about 120 people every Monday night — but it turned out that the space wasn’t going to work out as a garden. Drainage and power lines conflicted, and the Henry family, who donated the land, had asked that it be used as a playfield.
However, when Cooperative Extension staff paid the property a visit, they deemed the slopes along its edge the perfect place for fruit trees and grapes.
“That’s the dream spot for an orchard, as it turns out. I didn’t know any of this,” said Johnson. Now enrolled in Master Gardener classes, she was a gardening novice when she first got involved. “I just knew that it was awful, 120 people having to be fed in a community of 700.”
Today, the orchard-vineyard is one step closer to reality with 80 feet of grapevines and an array of apple and cherry trees planted there last fall. More recently two beehives arrived, whose inhabitants will pollinate the trees. These improvements will kick off year number two at Maggie Valley Community Gardens, but they’re not the first things to get growing.
A growing garden
As Johnson and Bond talked last winter, Bond’s niece, who belongs to the Baptist Church, overheard the conversation.
“Word spread from her to her uncle. We got more land up on Evans Cove and on Soco,” Johnson said. “Before we knew it, the wonderful Anglican priest, father Michael from the Anglican Church, said, ‘I love orchards. We’ve always wanted an orchard.”
Soon Johnson, a Unitarian Universalist who is not a member of any local church, found herself at the center of a multi-denominational band of volunteers — as well as some people who didn’t profess Christianity at all — joined together against hunger in Maggie Valley.
That kind of multi-denominational effort isn’t always common, but to Johnson it makes sense — especially in a community like Maggie, where the churches are small. By joining together, little groups of believers can combine resources and volunteer power to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
“No church here in the valley is big enough to have a full program on their own,” Johnson said. “There’s only 700 of us who live here period, and you either work together on something or nothing gets done.”
Maggie Valley Community Gardens is getting plenty done. Aside from the orchard and fruit trees at the Methodist church, there’s a group of raised beds inside a sturdy, elk-proof fence at the First Baptist Church and a pair of gardens that aren’t on the property of any church.
“The potato patch is on land from a member of the Methodist church whose husband has been dead 15 to 20 years, and that was his pride and joy, his love, his garden, and it has not been worked since he died,” Johnson said. “She has been thrilled to have us up there working his land and have people just show up in her yard.”
Even worked by a team of neophytes, Johnson said, the 40-by-40-foot patch yielded 20 bushels of potatoes last year, enough to carry the church through February.
A drive up a steep road snaking the north side of the valley leads to the final piece of Maggie Valley Community Gardens, a patch in Evans Cove that’s part of a larger family farm. That’s where the corn and pumpkins grow. Last year, the group froze 88 quarts of creamed corn to use during the winter, in addition to countless ears of corn on the cob that came in fresh, and they sold pumpkins at Maggie Valley Oktoberfest.
It’s a lot of land and a lot of food, but there’s still plenty of room to grow, Johnson said.
“We’ve been offered that many more sites by people who say, ‘Oh, we’d love for you to come work our ground.’ It just kills them to see their land lie fallow, and some magnificent spots have been offered us,” she said, looking out to the blue-skied mountain view from the Evans Cove farm. “We are just at our capacity. But the need’s there.”
At this point, it’s an issue of manpower. It takes a lot of hands and a lot of hours to prepare the ground and plant the seeds and pull the weeds and harvest the produce; the list of tasks goes on. However, Johnson is hopeful. The group’s support has grown to include non church-based help — the Town of Maggie Valley has given assistance — and interest is growing. Last year, between six and eight people took an active role in the garden, and this year that number has doubled.
“If we did that again, we could take on some more,” Johnson said. “We really could.”
Putting church lawns to work
Maggie Valley isn’t the only community in Western North Carolina whose church members have turned into gardeners in order to help feed the hungry. Church lawns across the area are sprouting veggie patches where grass once grew, putting the space to work growing food for those who don’t have enough of it.
“I think it’s a faith issue for us,” said Pattie Curtis, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sylva. “We have been given this beautiful creation to care for, to steward. God created us and placed us in a garden and gave us this. That’s our creation story.”
St. John’s is in its fifth year of growing veggies in a 40-by-40-foot space behind the church building, an adventure that started in much the same way as Johnson’s: with an observation.
“We looked at all of that green grass and thought, ‘Oh my, think about how much food we could produce here if we didn’t have green grass,’” said Curtis, who holds a master’s degree in public health policy, of the day she and a church member first cooked up the idea.
The garden did not actually land on church property, however. An unused piece of ground behind the church, owned by adjoining First Citizen’s Bank, turned out to be a better bet, and the bank agreed to let the church use the land. Now, the area houses 12 raised beds, a 30-foot tomato bed, apple trees and an okra hedge along the street.
There’s a “die-hard” group of about 10 people that does the bulk of the work. The food goes to The Community Table’s food pantry and to Vecinos — Spanish for “neighbor” — a nonprofit that cares for farmworkers in the area.
“I really wish we had measured the amount of produce we grow over the year, because I’m sure it would be tons, and I’m not exaggerating,” Curtis said.
Liz Nance, a Bryson City-based musician who belongs to The Grove Church, echoed that sentiment.
“We had more squash than anyone should be having,” she said of her first year running a garden at her church. “Seventy-two dozen ears of corn.”
Nance and her husband A.J. are yet another example of people who spotted some fallow land and decided to put it to use. At first they were working the little plot behind the church building with a small team of about four other people, but in the second and third years the group grew from six to between eight and 12, depending how you count. They took a break last year — the Nances are musicians and were traveling during the growing season — but are back on for 2015.
“We were feeding at least four families the first couple years,” Nance said. “We did it steadily and then took produce once a week to Cornerstone Living and Mountain View Manor [nursing homes]. We were able to do two deliveries like that a week in the growing season.”
By and large, the people spearheading church gardening and food relief efforts aren’t experts. They’re not people with years of experience in farming or nonprofit operations or food relief. They’re just people who care enough to put in the time.
So why churches? Why not let the combination of government programs and established nonprofits use their experts to do the work?
Well, for one thing, a church can be an easier place to go to than a government building or food pantry, Johnson said. To people who find themselves in need of a free meal, other community “safe places” like schools and police stations often don’t come associated with the word “safe.” Church buildings, on the other hand, are tied to a cultural knowledge that they’re places that exist to help people.
“When they’re in trouble, they know that that is one place they can go and not be turned away,” Johnson said.
There are also practical reasons why churches are so well poised to be the clearinghouse for food relief efforts. They have diverse memberships of people with different skill sets and connections to contribute, for one thing, and for another they often meet in buildings surrounded by grassy space that’s not used for much besides giving a lawnmower a job.
“Most of them have weekly meals and feedings,” said Adam Bigelow, director of Cullowhee Community Gardens, a non church-based garden whose members are asked to donate a portion of their produce. “They can be producing the food on their land instead of mowing.”
There’s also the matter of mission.
“As Christians, our work is God’s work, and the things we do are supposed to be in love for other people and for him,” Nance said. “And so a garden is a great way, even metaphorically, to put a seed into good soil and take care of it and tend it and love it. It’s such a perfect metaphor for the church itself, the way churches grow together.”
“Jesus said, ‘The two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor,’ and I feel that the way we love God and the way we love our neighbor is by serving,” Curtis agreed.
The churches involved in this work don’t see themselves as picking up the slack dropped by others. They see themselves as taking ownership of a job that has been theirs all along.
“One lady, wife of a retired missionary, said, ‘It has always been the responsibility of churches to feed the needy. The government took it over and has made a big mess of it,’” Johnson said, relating a pair of conversations she’s had on the topic. “The other related, ‘I personally know a widow lady, 89 years old, who receives a total of $14 per month for food. If the government is going to feed them, they’re going to have to do a better job of it.’”
The fishing talk
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
It’s an old, widely accepted adage, but the whole fish versus fishing thing can create a dilemma for food relief efforts, especially those that involve serving free meals and bags of groceries. Why put so much effort into growing food for other people rather than teaching them to grow it — or earn money to buy it — themselves?
It’s not a question that these church gardeners have ignored.
“This is a discussion we have. Are we enabling helplessness?” Johnson said.
It’s a roundabout discussion that will probably never conclude. But the answer thus far starts with the fact that some people actually are helpless to provide for themselves. Others are not.
“When you are feeding a child or an elderly person who cannot provide, no, you’re not enabling. You’re not enabling them,” Johnson said. “But for people who can do, I think they have an absolute responsibility to give of their abilities, and we will show them how and we will never look down upon them.”
At first — and really, still now — it was as much as anyone with the Maggie Valley Community Gardens could handle to get the land plowed, the seeds sown, the harvest gathered, the people fed. But Johnson has plenty of ideas for how the group could extend its mission to include some metaphorical fishing lessons.
For instance, they’re working with the Haywood County Master Gardeners to look at getting some teaching beds at Jonathan Creek Elementary, where the majority of Maggie Valley children whose families need food assistance come from. They’ve also thought about starting a prison ministry to teach people serving time how to grow their own food.
“We’re trying to find ways to not be just in the business of handing out,” Johnson said.
A ministry of relationships
Nance doesn’t see The Grove’s garden as being in the handout business. Teaching was the mission from the outset.
“I think some people think that it [gardening] is harder than it is,” Nance said. “We wanted to get involved and show people that if we do something as a group, it does take a lot of the pressure off and a lot of the work off and we can come up with more by working together.”
It’s a relationship-based ministry in which those who are growing the food know the people who are receiving it. They enter their homes, shake their hands, get to know them as people. And they encourage them to come on down to the garden to learn how it’s done.
“There was one lady who loved squash — that’s just want she wanted — but she physically couldn’t come down so she would just sit on the hill and encourage us and pray for us from the hill,” Nance recalled.
Those relationships are the cornerstone of the garden ministry, Nance said. They’re what cause it to transcend a simple food supply operation to become something much more personal and, possibly, more helpful than a swipe card for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or a monthly government check.
“When you have a personal relationship with the people you’re helping and the people you’re teaching, you can see areas in their lives you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see that you can reach into by offering more help than just the food,” Nance said.
A question of humanity
When someone’s hungry, the potential reasons why are nearly limitless. By getting to know the person, Nance said, you get to know the reason. Then, maybe, you can start to do something more than putting a patch on hunger for that meal in that day.
But providing the meal is the unavoidable first step, because philosophical discussions about the hows and whys of food insecurity don’t help the person whose stomach is growling now, Curtis said.
“Until we solve that problem of poverty, we are going to have people who are hungry,” she said. “We have to look at the person who is hungry today. They need food on their plate today. They don’t need us to talk about, ‘Why are you hungry?’”
That’s still an important conversation to be having, though, Curtis said. What forces are at work to keep refrigerators empty and bank accounts lacking? How do we address “food deserts,” areas without grocery stores or farmers markets?
“We need to feed them today, but we also need to be doing that work in our city to address that question of what causes that poverty, what causes that homelessness,” she said.
The causes range from poor economic circumstances to drug and alcohol addiction to lack of education to health problems and populate every crevice in between.
In her work in Maggie Valley, Johnson sees a lot of broken families, often with children who are being raised by grandparents or single mothers while parents have “either gone somewhere else to work or have felt that they had no other choices than to get involved in things that are very self-destructive.” The area also includes many elderly people on fixed incomes. That’s mainly who comes to Monday night meals at the Methodist church, Johnson said, some because they’re hungry, some because they’re lonely and some for both reasons.
Many of the issues in Bryson City stem from the town’s tourist-driven economy, Nance said. A good chunk of the jobs are seasonal, and come January or February it’s hard to find work. There are also a good many people struggling with drug problems, and even recovering addicts can have trouble providing.
“It’s easy to get yourself out of a hole if you can rely on yourself and God and others, but if you’ve been digging the hole yourself, it’s hard because you’re tired,” Nance explained.
Curtis simply said that hunger in Jackson County is due to poverty and homeless. It’s hard to generalize beyond that.
“There are different kinds of poverty, different reasons for poverty,” Curtis said. “It’s a very complex issue.”
It’s an issue that she’s studied academically, and it’s one she’s helped attack organizationally.
But at its heart, hunger is an issue of heart.
“We’re all human beings, and if some of us are hurting, I hope the rest of us will be racing out to heal that hurt,” she said. “To me it’s not a question of a denomination. It’s a question of humanity.”
Food insecurity in Western North Carolina
Food insecurity has a slightly different meaning than hunger. A household that’s food insecure might not always have an empty refrigerator but will sometimes have to make tradeoffs between meeting important needs, such as rent or electric bills, and buying food. In the four-county area, the percentage of the population that is food insecure hovers in the teens.
Haywood: 14.3 percent, 35 percent of those do not qualify for SNAP
Jackson: 16.3 percent, 29 percent of those do not qualify for SNAP
Macon: 16.2 percent, 28 percent of those do not qualify for SNAP
Swain: 18.1 percent, 35 percent of those do not qualify for SNAP
Source: Feeding America, based on 2009-2012 data. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program