A look behind the minds behind Bethel’s Unity Garden

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The upcoming World Consumer Rights Day – which, among other things, celebrates our right to choose what we eat – has prompted the Beacon to begin a series on environmental issues around Bethel. One of these environmental factors is Bethel’s upcoming Unity Garden. The Unity Gardens program was started by Bethel nursing alumna Sara Stewart. While teaching community health at St. Mary’s College, Sara routinely took nursing students to Hope Ministries to perform complimentary health checks on the shelter residents. 15235700_106534009837493_3770310502347635111_o “I remember during one of these trips, I overheard one of the students say to one of the homeless people, ‘oh, your blood pressure’s too high, you need to eat less salt.’ And I can remember it striking me as silly,” recalled Stewart. “I mean absolutely ridiculous. Here we have these people who really don’t have any control over their diet because they don’t have access to the right kind of food or the means to get that food. All they have is what is provided for them.” Stewart said that she was a fifth-generation gardener. Her great-grandfather was a natural doctor that published a book on herbal remedies, and the rest of her family has been involved in growing food in one aspect or another ever since then. “People ask me all the time, ‘Where did you get your model?’” said Stewart. “I always answer them, ‘I didn’t, I just started growing food.’” The garden has more benefits than just offering fruits and vegetables, however. One of the things that makes Unity Gardens so unique is the fact that there's no barrier, physical or psychological, between the servers and those who come for food. Sara spoke in the interview about how demoralizing it can be for a homeless or impoverished person to go to a soup kitchen. Even in a charitable environment like a soup kitchen, there is still a barrier between the two groups. On one side of the line are the people who have the food, and on the other side of the line are all the people who don’t have any food. In the gardens, people simply come and pick the food. “Between the food and our volunteers, we are promoting not just physical health, but social health, environmental sustainability, economic growth and spiritual wellness,” said Stewart. So, how does this affect Bethel College? Why should we plant a unity garden? Dr. Cassandra May discussed the events that led to our college installing one of these gardens. “My church that I came from in Columbus had a church garden that they would grow food in and then donate to the local food pantry,” said May. “(Bethel) faculty had an innovation training in August of last year...and they sat us at tables with people from different departments and we had to share our innovative ideas. I said ‘well, it’d be really nice if we had a garden like my church had,’ and one of the faculty members, a nursing faculty member, said ‘oh you mean like Unity Gardens?’” This conversation with a nursing faculty member led to May meeting Stewart and planning the garden. There are over 50 Unity Gardens in nearby South Bend, but Bethel’s will be the first in Mishawaka. When May approached Bethel’s administration about the Unity Garden, permission was granted almost immediately. However, the space was not guaranteed forever. According to the school’s master plan, that area of the campus, which currently hosts the art department, will eventually become a parking lot. At that time the art department will have been moved into a new building. “When you think about it, growing a garden is just tilling up soil and planting things. We can move if we have to,” said May. Stewart was immediately on board. She said that she has always wanted to be able to put a garden on Bethel’s campus to reach the surrounding neighborhoods; as well as because of her Bethel alumna status. When asked about the funding, May spoke of a meeting she had with ENACTUS, also known as the Bethel business club. As a part of their community service, they usually have several projects to work on. When May approached Lori Stutzman, the club’s head, about how to create a “green club,” ENACTUS had no projects and was free to help. “They wrote a couple grants, and one of them got funded,” said May. “Unity Gardens, (the organization,) gave us seeds, and we are going to rent a few tools to get the garden started. The garden is also a part of the Online Giving Day donations. We’re hoping to put in a patio area to help with hosting volunteers and guests.” May also spoke of the benefits that having a garden on campus would bring. “Academically, I plan on using it in my classes,” she said. “I want to make other professors aware of the garden too. Kindergarteners, come on over and learn about plants. Academically, it is a resource. I plan on incorporating it into environmental studies, biology (and) ecology class. I like to say we are the EAT in GREATer. Encore (E) shows the campus’ heart for creation care; we love God and we take care of the environment, and we’re growing food, and it’s free for everyone. Aesthetic (A), we’re using underutilized green space and turning it into a beautiful garden with a patio and benches, so you can have an outdoor classroom or a gathering or impromptu salad if you want. And the T is for Testimony, where we share our heart for creation care and the environment with the community, and we can invite them in to have this opportunity for students and the neighbors to interact in a way that is totally organic.”
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