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2011-12-01 issue:

Church harvests help end 'food deserts'

Young adults driving force behind church, community gardens

by Anna Groff with reporting by Rachel Giovarelli on Eighth Street Mennonite

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This year, Mennonite churches around the country offered the fruit (and vegetables) of their labor from their community gardens.

John VanderHeide, 26, describes his church’s neighborhood as a “food desert.” Rainbow Mennonite Church is located in the Rosedale neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan.

Eighth Street Mennonite Church food garden pickers are (standing) Delores Bartel, Ben Wiebe and Kristin Saner and (kneeling in front) Leonard Wiebe, Rachel Eisenhour and Joan Wiebe. Photo by

“There are no actual grocery stores, … and the lack of public transportation means that most residents have to get food from convenience stores,” says VanderHeide of       Holland, Mich.

In response, Rainbow Mennonite provides produce from its gardens to Rosedale Farmer’s Market, which operates out of Southwest Blvd. Family Health Care Center.

Rainbow Mennonite manages and co-manages three gardens: one across from the church parking lot, one near the church in partnership with the Rosedale Health Kids  Initiative and one at the Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) house in partnership with the Rosedale Development Association.

VanderHeide, an MVS worker, works with the MVS garden. Not only did that garden turn a vacant lot into something life giving and vibrant, it also allowed MVS workers to make connections.

Through the garden and by sharing produce, VanderHeide learned more names of his neighbors in one week than in the previous nine months of living in the MVS house.

“This is incredibly important … because most of our congregants do not come from the neighborhood around the church, so finding ways to connect to our place is hard,” he says.

Nicole Bauman, 26, also began community gardening as an MVS volunteer through her placement with the Elkhart (Ind.) Local Food Alliance.

In the spring of 2010, she began the Prairie Street Mennonite Church’s Jubilee House Neighborhood Demonstration Garden. The garden extends all around the MVS house and garage—utilizing almost all the lawn space.

Bauman and others offer cooking and gardening classes to children and community members. They use recycled and reused gardening equipment, demonstrating how to garden with little space and resources.

When produce was ripe and ready, neighbors sometimes helped themselves—which Bauman says she was OK with.

“We encourage people to come and learn, but we are also OK with people taking [from the garden],” she says.

One Sunday morning at Lockport Mennonite Church near Stryker, Ohio, members munched on fresh salsa served with tortilla chips. The salsa was made from the tomatoes and peppers from the new garden at Lockport.

“[The salsa] was a big hit,” says John Dinius, a Menno­nite Youth Fellowship sponsor at Lockport last year.

However, the garden’s intentions included more than snacks for church members on Sunday. After a group from Lockport read Why Jesus Crossed the Road by Bruce D. Main, members decided to use the abundant lawn space around the church to start a garden.

In addition to most of the salsa ingredients, the garden produced radishes, zucchini, squash, green beans and more.

Dinius encouraged members to pick the produce and share it with people at their work or their neighbors. Eventually, he hopes to donate produce to food banks and food pantries running low on fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Being a rural church with a strong agriculture background, Lockport could be a great resource to the community, with generations of knowledge available on growing and preparing fresh food,” he says.

Lockport can look to Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., which shared some of 600 pounds of vegetables with the local food pantry, Harvest of Hope, this year.

After the demolition of rental houses on the lot a few years ago, the church considered the idea of a community garden. Ben Wiebe, a junior at Goshen High School, brought this idea up again last fall to benefit the Harvest of Hope Food Pantry, and the church formed a committee—now chaired by Ben and his grandfather Leonard Wiebe.

Due to the economic recession and the closure of several RV plants in the Goshen and Elkhart area, the need for dietary assistance has drastically increased. The Harvest of Hope Food Pantry offers food items to families in need. Eighth Street provides fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that are less commonly donated.

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