It was late Saturday morning, and Kevin Totty egged on a small crowd of volunteers gathered at Sixth and Union streets to erupt into cheers.
One duo was nearly finished assembling the metal exterior for a raised garden bed — one of several to be located in the shape of a cross in an aged parking lot owned by Grace Episcopal Church — and the progress was a feat to celebrate.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! We have a winner getting a fabulous prize!” Totty announced jokingly, clapping his hands. Others laughed nearby. After a few moments, and a few screws away from finishing, Totty stepped in to help.
The moment was emblematic of the project they were there to complete. Totty summed it up a few minutes before
We’re all working together. It’s a collaboration,” he said.
Nearby, a few piles of soil and stone awaited use to help the new spot for the church’s “Good News Garden” take shape. Jeanette Ettin, a worship leader at Grace and the garden’s coordinator, said they got a $20,000 grant from the church’s Diocese of Eastern Michigan to make it happen after previously having a garden on a different property.
All of it, they said, was to help continue past efforts in feeding those in need in the community.
“This year, I said, ‘You know, we have to do something,’ and I went to the vestry, and I said, ‘We have to have a place.’ … That’s why we ended up doing it this way,” Ettin said. “I was talking to Kevin and I said, ‘So, let’s do it on the church property.'”
“It is to do exactly what we’re doing: Building community,” she added. “Not just with each other, but churches of different kinds. It doesn’t even have to be a church. It can be any kind of community organization.”
Reflecting on a walkable community with fresh gardens
Ettin said the church also had another garden on a parishioner’s property in Ruby, where they planned to grow vine vegetables. At Sixth and Union, she said they anticipate growing tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, beans, and potentially greens, turnips, rutabaga, and okra.
“Next year, it’ll probably be different,” Ettin said. She hoped to touch base with other existing community garden coordinators. “Then, everybody (will be) deciding what it is they’re going to grow.”
A paster with the #C4Yourself Church and program coordinator at the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, Totty talked about that, too — working with other gardens.
And he weaved in mentions of other partners Saturday, recounting the broader effort to feed residents in need and those who may live in a food desert.
There was the Community Foundation’s concept of delivering fresh food in a pop-up market. Then, there was working with other churches and pastors, as well as Michigan State University Extension to help provide information on the nutritional value of foods and recipes. There were also volunteers who helped distribute food to those without a vehicle or means to get to a food truck.
Totty said it was important to coordinate what they grow, so “people can walk through our community and get a fresh plate.”
“Jeanette had this vision about being able to bring those huge gardens to right here, a walkable community. That’s what Grace has right here,” Totty added. “You’ll notice, they’re building the garden right here. People will be able to come here. There will be fresh produce. There’ll be food for us, there will be a way that people can come in, and we’ll still be able to take those garden items out.”
Passing on the torch in feeding those in need
Who the garden will be named for — Lydia Speller, a rector at Grace Episcopal who died in 2021 — Totty said she also understood the mission.
“She passed the torch to all of us. Lydia had a dream of going ahead and keeping this market going,” Totty said.
The Good News effort had over 100 volunteers throughout the day Saturday, he said, helping assemble the garden. Most of them were from 15 to 20 different groups.
In past seasons, they said market efforts have fed dozens of families with hundreds of pounds of food every week.
It’d be a while before the new garden would yield anything, and in the meantime, Ettin said she worried about other things affecting the people they help, like how long supplemental food assistance that came with the pandemic would last. There also tends to be a two-week window, she said, between when a month’s assistance ends and the next month’s begins, adding, “That’s when families are bad off.”
Totty said that gap will give them time to get things growing.
Ettin said they were lucky — it didn’t take much, and it came with plenty of benefits.
“This is a way of building community, getting community to be with each other, and being safe,” she said. “…And you only need a small piece of property.”
“I think that’s the strength of the garden,” Totty added. “It’s going to go ahead and fill from this point forward until December. We’ll still be addressing needs, collaborating with other organizations in this community, such as Seed and Soul and other places that feed our community.”
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 662-4090 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.