SOLON– Last fall, Chris Humrichouse got the seed of an idea stuck in her head.
She had read a newspaper article about several schools in Iowa City that had implemented garden projects in an effort to help provide fresh produce for their lunch programs and for others.
“I read this, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to start a community garden?” she said.
During preparation for an evening meal at the Solon United Methodist Church (SUMC), where Humrichouse serves as Associate Pastor, she learned she wasn’t the only one who thought a community garden project would be great.
It turned out that SUMC High School Youth Director Rick Havel had the same idea growing in his mind as well. Havel has a growing interest in gardening, as he has gravitated toward a more plant-based diet to improve his personal health, and thought working in groups would be a great way to learn from each other.
“Community gardens can be a great way to bring multiple age groups together and build relationships,” said Havel. “Luckily other people within our church feel the same way and have helped this idea take off.”
In fact, several people in the kitchen that night evening jumped into the conversation, and found they were all nurturing a kernel of the same dream.
Soon, the idea spread like wildflowers.
Now, there is a core group of about nine people who have made the commitment to starting a community garden here in Solon, with the intention of growing fresh produce to donate to the North Liberty Community Food Pantry, the Johnson County Crisis Center and other people in need. The church already has tilled the ground in a perfect location, an empty lot across the street by the SUMC Family Life Center.
“We are just going to start with a small plot,” said Humrichouse of the planned 20 by 30 ft. garden. “We want to do this simply. We just want to try it and see what happens.”
Whatever happens, Humrichouse said, there are innumerable opportunities for stewardship within the project, from being good to the environment to being good to our neighbors.
“This is a ministry in a variety of ways,” she said. “We want to make fresh food available to those who need it. There is a faith message here, in that we are caring for the earth, for each other, and for ourselves, by recognizing that eating fresh is eating smart.”
On the environmental side, said Havel, growing food and purchasing local produce can help reduce our carbon foot print. Plus, fresh food tastes better, he said. Most of the food produced in the community garden will go to food pantries in Johnson County, for users who often don’t have access to fresh produce.
Gardening also offers intergenerational opportunities, by pairing kids with older adults who can offer knowledge and advice, but can no longer actually get down in the dirt. Teaching moments will be abundant, when kids experience first-hand how produce gets from seed to garden to table. Potential offshoots of the project are endless; perhaps the formation of a neighborhood compost pile, a rain barrel system, or partnerships with outside youth groups and organizations that also have an interest in working for the greater good.
The garden group has just begun to share the idea with SUMC congregation members, and the rest of the community. There is no funding for the project, so Havel and Humrichouse are hoping for many volunteers to help dig, plant, mulch and weed throughout the summer, as well as people willing to sponsor plants or donate other materials.
A list of needed supplies is being put together, and the garden plot has been tilled. Soon, planting will begin.
About two months ago, Havel created a Facebook page to bring together people interested in celebrating “slow food”– a practice and philosophy of eating wholesome, delicious, locally-grown food that is produced through sustainable farming practices– and the arts of gardening and cooking. He is most excited about watching the garden project sprout from this original intention.
“I wanted to help build a network of local people that were interested in gardening,” said Havel. “The primary purpose is to connect people and share knowledge.
Humrichouse said it is good for a church to cultivate the idea that a ministry grows “outside our own four walls,” she said.
She agreed that Solon is sometimes viewed as a relatively affluent community, where healthy food is accessible, budgets stretch to cover the cost of produce and parents teach children about the benefits of eating fresh foods.
“That’s one description, but it’s not the only description,” Humrichouse said.
Recently, SUMC Pastor Carol Kress invited North Liberty Community Food Pantry Director Tina DuBois to give a presentation to SUMC’s Wednesday night youth groups and others in the community. Kress said she wanted to learn more about whether or not a food pantry would be a useful resource in Solon.
DuBois said the pantry serves families from all over Johnson County, including Solon families.
“Families sometimes need a little help,” DuBois told the audience. “Other times, it’s all they have. The pantry exists to help people just like us.” DuBois’ statistics indicated that one in six people– about 16,000 people in Johnson County alone– are considered “food insecure;” they don’t know where their next meal will come from. The pantry sees approximately 500 visitors per month, and distributes about 12,000 pounds of food to those who use it.
In April, SUMC and St. Mary’s Catholic Church youths group went door to door to collect canned goods, and gathered 675 pounds of food in less than two hours, all to be donated to the North Liberty food pantry; they understand that some families need a helping hand now and then, and they understand some of those users could be families just like their own.
Humrichouse, Havel and others understand there is also need for fresh food, both on the pantry shelves and in refrigerators right here in our own community. They are also excited that a little conversation held while preparing dinner– a bit of irony in itself, Humrichouse noted– has bloomed into a project so full of potential.
“We just hope it’s successful, and the size of the garden, the produce and the partnerships will all grow,” said Humrichouse.