“Feed my sheep.” That is what Jesus tells Peter to do when Peter insists three times that he loves Jesus. If you ask me what I am passionate about, it comes down to those three words: feed my sheep. I’ve been passionate about food and issues around food for as long as I can remember. Growing, cooking, eating, sharing meals, making sure those around us have enough, you name it.
As a public health professional, I became acutely aware of the impact food has on people’s health. Growing obesity and diabetes epidemics are a direct result of eating habits. It seems simple: eat healthy food, get healthy. But it’s not that simple. The issue is complex, and there is no way to adequately cover it in a simple blog post. Food security is only one facet of the issue. The USDA defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” People in our own neighborhoods do not have access to fresh, healthy food. A food desert is an area of low income and low access to food (no grocery store within a mile). Did you know that the area on Chamberlayne Avenue directly across from our church is a food desert? 31% of households in that census tract are without vehicles and more than a half mile from a grocery store (Source: USDA). Gas stations and convenience stores are often a regular source of groceries. If you have no transportation, and you have to decide between feeding your family food from the convenience store across the street or going hungry, which would you choose?
So why a community garden, and why now? Our congregation has a history of supporting food access issues. A community garden would engage both GPPC members and neighbors in growing their own food. As you know, the Session recently adopted a set of values and goals. One of the goals we adopted is: “We will look for Christ in one another while sharing meals with strangers and friends. We will help hungry people in our neighborhood, city, and world set their tables with healthy food.” As we presented the values and goals to the congregation and asked for suggestions of how to accomplish this particular goal, over and over, the idea of a community garden kept bubbling to the surface. When asked to volunteer to take care of the garden, over 30 of you said you’d like to be involved!
In an effort to promote the community garden idea at the April block party, we had a gardening activity: planting seeds in recycled berry containers. One of our neighbors, Margaret, lives in an apartment complex on Chamberlayne Avenue. She grew up gardening and misses it. We told her about our community garden plans. She hugged me, and exclaimed, “I want to help!! I can’t wait to work with you!” I planted a salad mix for her in a container to take home. She asked for my phone number in case she had questions about the care of the lettuce. I gave her my cell number and didn’t really ever expect to hear from her again. She called me the next week to tell me her seeds had sprouted. And to remind me she wants to help with the garden. I won’t forget…I promised I’d call her when we are ready to plant. This feels like an opportunity to feed his sheep. We can help our neighbors get healthy, fresh food on their tables. We also have the opportunity to build relationships with our neighbors. It takes time to cultivate relationships, just as it takes time to cultivate a garden. We are starting small, with a few raised beds.
But, I must confess, that even while starting small, I have a dream for this project. Neighbors and congregation members working side-by-side, growing healthy food. Neighbors and congregation members teaching each other how to cook and preserve the harvest, side-by-side, in GPPC’s kitchen. Neighbors and congregation members sharing meals together, laughing, talking, crying, side-by-side. Healthier neighbors and congregation members with more energy to lead active lifestyles, exercising in the fellowship hall (or running) together, side-by-side. The distinction between residents of Chamberlayne Avenue and GPPC members would fade away. An outside observer would just see the relationships between all of God’s children. Food and relationships, cultivated, side-by-side. It’s a big dream, I know, but I think that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Feed my sheep.”
Having just finished feeding God’s sheep at our recent neighborhood block party, Kimberly Carswell is ready to get back outside and help us think more about neighbors, food and community. Join her and others in the to-be-developed garden this Saturday, May 18, with gardening tools and a neighborly spirit to start the garden installation. If you want to help, click HERE to go to our Community Garden 2013 page where you can sign up to help weed and water throughout the summer and fall!