Church plants for food insecurity
By Lindsay Peyton
This summer, something new is growing in the Texas Annual Conference. A community garden is under construction in Houston’s Riverside UMC, in collaboration with the University of Houston Wesley Foundation. Fresh fruits and vegetables from the site will be used to combat food insecurity in the area. Further south, plants are being harvested in Santa Fe, Texas, at a shared garden created by Aldersgate UMC and nearby Saltgrass Cowboy Church. Members of both congregations are invited to pick sun-ripened vegetables.
At each community garden, the seeds have been sown for fellowship and outreach. Organizers hope this could be a model for other churches — green thumbs not required.
Harvest to combat food insecurity at Riverside UMC
Every part of the new greenspace at Riverside UMC in Houston felt divinely inspired to Associate Pastor Denise Caulfield, who also serves as Campus Minister for the University of Houston Wesley Foundation.
It started with a vision. She was facilitating the 3rd Ward Collaborative Health Fair in February, and the topic of the area being a food desert kept coming up. Access to nutrition in the neighborhood was essential – but obstacles continued to stand in the way.
Caulfield grew frustrated. “It got to a point where I just was tired of hearing it,” she recalled. “I asked, What can we do about this?”
She remembered her family gardening during her childhood – and how neighbors would share the bounty. “One thing no one lacked was food,” she said.
Then, Caulfield wondered, “What if we got back to basics? We could build a garden. We can grow fresh fruits and vegetables and extend the harvest to the community.”
There was only one problem, Caulfield admitted. “I don’t know a thing about gardening,” she said with a laugh.
But that would not stop her. She had taken a class on gardening before from master gardener Janice Brown in the past. In the session, she learned not only how to build a greenspace but also what to plant and how to manage a garden.
Caulfield envisioned doing the same for the community – growing fresh fruits and vegetables, while also empowering neighbors to garden themselves.
She decided to find the teacher who helped her and drove to the gardening center. Before long, she connected with Brown.
“And she was United Methodist,” Caulfield said. “It was astounding. We ended up talking for two hours. It was divinely inspired.”
Caulfield told her, “I need your help. How do I make this thing work?”
“She got right on board,” Caulfield recalled. “She created a layout of the garden.”
In the meantime, Caulfield said Riverside UMC offered a piece of land for the greenspace. She secured the backing of the UH’s Wesley Foundation and sought additional funding. Bellaire and Faith UMC’s purchased materials to launch the project. Her own siblings donated $1,000 to support the garden.
Gary Flaharty, treasurer for UH’s Wesley Foundation, also stepped up to help. He leads JIVs from Bellaire UMC, Faith UMC and West University UMC. Usually these junior high and high school students complete a service project each year, but they were on the lookout for a new one.
Flaharty offered to take on the community garden. “Not only for this year, but we can continue it every year,” he said.
Before long, shovels were ready to hit the dirt at Riverside UMC. The students came out on June 17-19 and built two large raised beds. There are plans for five more beds.
“It was just a dream – and now it’s a reality,” Caulfield said. “I can’t wait to start planting – and have the students come back to see the fruits of their labor.”
She explained that when UH students come to help with the garden, it will provide a chance for evangelism. When church members work to grow produce and open their harvests to neighbors in need, it will be an incredible outreach opportunity. “It’s a win-win situation for the church,” she said.
Caulfield eventually hopes to add benches, rainwater collection barrels and a space to teach gardening classes. “What it can do in the long-run is going to be priceless,” she said.
The community garden can be an example for other churches who would like to address food insecurity. They can harvest their own produce for food pantries, Caulfield added.
“What is this thing kicks off? We can duplicate these gardens,” she said. “I’d like to use this as a model. Who knows who else will come on board? This is so needed. It benefits everybody. It gives us the opportunity to really build community.”
Congregations planting together at Aldersgate UMC
The Gardening Group meets for once a month at Aldersgate UMC in Santa Fe – and includes church members as well as others in the community. Bob Camp joined the church about eight years ago – and also signed up to be a part of the club.
For a while, he said, the group wanted to create a community garden at the church. “Someone mentioned it at a meeting, and it just grew from there,” Camp said.
Last year, the project was in the works, when COVID-19 brought it to a halt. Another major challenge was the lack of space with water for a garden on church campus, Camp explained.
That’s when the Gardening Group got creative – and joined forces with nearby Saltgrass Cowboy Church, which had outdoor space to spare.
Camp said that a member of the congregation also had a tractor and helped plow the land. “As we went along, it just fell in line,” he added.
About two months ago, he planted rows of corn. There are also squash, tomato, peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, green beans, cucumbers and dill growing in the 40 by 30 foot plot.
While the Aldersgate UMC Gardening Group handled the planting, everyone is invited to share in the harvest, Camp explained. “If it’s there and it’s ripe, take it,” he said. “It’s not too big, but it’s just enough for our two churches.”
Since this is just the beginning for the garden, Camp is uncertain whether there will be any leftovers to share. If there is an excess becomes available, plans call for delivering the produce to those less fortunate. “There are people around here who need it,” Camp said. “It’s going to go to a good cause. We’re going to feed some people. That’s what it’s all about.”
He said that the garden provides fellowship opportunities for members of Aldersgate and the Cowboy Church. “It gives people a chance to get together and work up a sweat,” he said.
Camp added that church is the ideal place for a garden – and reaping the harvest. “You start off with a group of people who know each other,” he said. “You figure out what they want to do and what they can do. And with the grace of God, you move right along.”