A wildly diverse crew of Charlotteans – young and old, rich and poor and in-between – are committing themselves to carrots, lending a hand to lettuce and keeping a sharp eye on spinach these days. They’re volunteers in eight church, school, and community groups who are planting Friendship Gardens to add fresh, local food to the 700 meals that Friendship Trays serves daily to shut-ins. For the kids, like 4-year-olds at Matthews Presbyterian Church’s Child Development Center, it’s a chance to meet a worm, toss dead leaves with abandon, and throw yourself across a raised garden bed in search of a blade of grass to eradicate. “Oh, there’s one!” one small weeder yelled triumphantly during the fall harvest, creating a stampede of 4-year-old bodies toward the offending blade. For adults like Dr. Brett Tempest, who helped start Irwin Creek Community Garden, there are broader ramifications. Tempest, a UNC Charlotte assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, was a leader in the effort by Revolution Park and Clanton neighborhood associations to establish a garden to serve their communities in spring 2010. The gardeners, assisted by other volunteers, now tend eight of their 16 beds for Friendship Trays. “It gives us a way to identify ourselves with something we contribute to the city. It makes the neighborhood even more special,” he says. And for individuals like Matthews Presbyterian’s Rev. Bill Pederson, the garden offers a chance to focus on some of the basics of life. He’s in charge of watering, and, he says, “I don’t even take my phone out there. It’s just me and that water and those plants and God.”
‘Fresh, local, the best you can get'
The gardeners’ reactions are just what the gardens’ founders and benefactors want to see. A Friendship Garden carrot is not just a carrot, says leader Henry Owen, although “They’re fresh; they’re local, and the best you can get.” It’s also a symbol of community, of respect for the Earth, and a means of sharing not only a tasty vegetable but the knowledge that went into growing it, he says. Friendship Gardens began when local-food advocacy group Slow Food Charlotte teamed with Friendship Trays in 2009 to start a demonstration garden behind the Friendship Trays office at 2401 Distribution Street. It gave rise to a clone or two, and then in 2010, the philanthropic Women’s Impact Fund chipped in $70,000 to help spread the idea across the city. There are now eight affiliated gardens, several others to whom Friendship Gardens offers training and other help, and several more affiliates in the making, including one at Gaston Day School. None are over one quarter acre in size. They all use raised beds and grow without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And they’re tucked wherever there’s room, in schoolyards, churchyards, and on parkland along Irwin and Little Sugar creeks. From August to mid-December 2010, the gardens gave Friendship Trays more than 1,100 pounds of fall vegetables like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, turnips, and greens. Spring crops of cabbage, lettuce, spinach and other greens are being planted now, and summer will bring even more variety. The haul is not yet enough to make much of a dent in the yearly food budget of more than $300,000, says Friendship Trays Executive Director Lucy Bush Carter. But the money that Friendship Trays would have spent buying it can be used to subsidize meals for needy recipients. And, says Carter, the bounty couldn’t be fresher. “It comes in right out of the garden.” It perks up salads, helps Friendship Trays teach visiting youngsters about nutrition, and, on occasion, provides a tasty side dish for all clients. That’s when Kitchen Manager Sibyl Durant freezes an item from one garden until enough loads arrive from other gardens to fill out the supply. “Two bags from this one, four from another. You get a meal,” says Owen. “We’re getting kids to think about nutrition,” Carter says. Children from the Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church garden, a contributor though not a formal affiliate, recently came to Friendship Trays for lunch. “We made sort of a kale salad, and some of them put it directly on top of their pizza,” Carter says. School rules prevent schoolyard gardeners at affiliates Sterling Elementary and Sedgefield Middle from being served the fruit of their labors in the cafeteria, but the children take samples home. “Usually they’ll take home a tomato,” says Owen. “Kids aren’t crazy about taking home a head of broccoli.” If they grow a vegetable, they’re more likely to be persuaded to eat it at home, believes Owen’s wife, Emily Owen. The associate pastor at Matthews Presbyterian, she watched with church garden task force member Diane Baker last fall as 4-year-olds spread mulch so enthusiastically that dust flew. Without gardens to teach them, Baker said, “I think the kids don’t really realize where food comes from. “They think it comes from Harris Teeter.”
Not just a love of carrots In awarding the grant to Slow Food Charlotte, the Women’s Impact Fund recognized not only Friendship Trays’ need for fresh, reasonably priced food, but also Slow Food’s contribution to the environment, says former grants committee chair Jeanette Sims. The eight-year-old Fund is supported by some 400 women leaders who come together informally to donate $1,200 each year to help organizations involved in community-building. Grants require a vote of the entire membership and are awarded in five areas, including the environment. Transporting food cross-country and from overseas contributes to atmosphere-damaging pollution, Sims says. “That’s why community gardens, while they have a tremendous value from a health standpoint and a local economic impact . . . have a tremendous positive effect on the environment.” Also, she says, the sense of volunteerism and community service that’s engendered in children and adults “is something that’s very important to our community.” Henry Owen puts it a different way. As tasty as the vegetables are, he says, “We’re not doing it because we love carrots.” The gardens’ impact, he says, lies in “all the people that interact with that carrot along its life.” That journey: Renfro’s Hardware in Matthews donates seeds that are them germinated into plants and raised to transplant size by inmates in Mecklenburg County Jail-North’s horticultural program. At gardens like Matthews Presbyterian, the plants come in “like this big,” says Baker, measuring 10 inches high with her hands. The ground behind the chapel has already been prepared by 25 or so adults and children during a “Dirt Day.” Friendship Gardens prepares some of the gardens’ compost; Wallace Farm in Huntersville donates compost and soil. After frequent watering by Pederson and a few weekend days of cultivation by volunteers, tiny hands plunge into the harvest. “Look! I did it. Look! I did it,” yelled one 4-year at harvest time, showing off an uprooted hunk of curly kale. When that kale is mixed with all the other produce coming in to Friendship Trays, Lucy Carter sees, not just the food, but the caring behind it. “It all had different’ people’s hands involved,” she says. “It’s great to be in these partnerships. “If it weren’t for the committed people and the relationships, we wouldn’t get the carrots.”
Where the Gardens Grow Matthews Presbyterian Church Sterling Elementary School Irwin Creek Community Sedgefield Middle School Little Sugar Creek Community Saber Treatment Program Covenant Presbyterian Church