<span class='image-credits'>Ben Tierney</span>

Midland Fresh partners with community gardens to bring produce to those in need

Recently, several community gardens across the city kicked off the summer with planting day as hoards of volunteers came together to plant fresh produce for the season. Arugula, zucchini, kale, peas and carrots are just a few of the many vegetables which lined the raised beds at Midland Christian School. Students from preschool to second grade were out transferring sprouting plants into the ground, and sowing new seeds. This year, the garden at Midland Christian School is one of seven gardens contributing to the Midland Fresh Mobile Stand to put an end to food insecurity in the Midland area.

“We hauled in over 2,000 pounds of dirt for this,” says Beth DeVries, a parent at Midland Christian School and coordinator of the partnership with Midland Fresh. “I'm hoping getting this story out inspires even more people to help grow healthy food and support our community.”

Midland Fresh has seven gardens across the city to help those in need.

The community gardens are one element of a city-wide initiative to raise awareness about food security and provide options for those who might need additional assistance. In 2016, a survey administered by Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) found that one in three households in Midland County are struggling to meet basic needs, forcing them to make the tough decision between paying bills and purchasing food for their family."

Many of these families fall into the ALICE population, an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

“ALICE families are those who are above the poverty line but still don’t make enough to make ends meet,” says Aaron Cianek, Director of Communications for United Way of Midland County. “On a day-to-day basis this can mean having to make difficult choices — do they put gas in the car or do they buy groceries, and if they live in an area where transportation is an issue it becomes even harder to access fresh, healthy produce.”

Learning how food grows is something that is taught to students of all ages in the program.

The survey results led United Way to partner with thirty different area nonprofits and SVSU to form the Midland County Hunger Connections, “a collaborative designed to reduce barriers for the hungry.” One initiative that was inspired by the coalition is the Midland Fresh Mobile Stand. Started by Kurt Faust of Coach Step-Up, Inc., the mobile farm stand delivered 1,500 pounds of produce to community members last year at designated locations.

“My thing is how do we get produce to the people who can’t get to any other resources. I always liked the idea of a huckster, someone who sets up shop in different neighborhoods and brings their product or service to the people,” says Kurt Faust, CEO of Coach Step-Up Inc, a nonprofit which seeks to fuse integrity and values into all parts of the community. “So we decided to get a trailer and create something that lets us go into the neighborhoods, hang out for a while, interact with people and give away produce.”

Overhead shots from Chapel Lane Presbyterian in Midland.

Throughout the summer, the stand will rotate between twelve pickup locations, spending about forty minutes at each station every week. The designated locations include Coleman Community Garden, West Midland Family Center, Floyd Elementary School, Whispering Pines (Sanford), Caregiving Network, Bracken Woods Apartments (Dublin), Chapel Lane Presbyterian Church, Joseph Run Apartments, Longview School, Village Town Homes (E. Patrick), Cleveland Manor Apartments and Alpine Mobile Home Village. A full schedule of the rotation can be found on the Midland Neighboring Facebook page.

“My favorite part is the neighboring piece — seeing neighbors meeting neighbors for the first time,” adds Faust. “Just pulling up and having ten to fifteen people who know you by name and are excited to tell you about how they tried spaghetti squash and loved it. That is amazing to experience those types of interactions within the community.”

The newly built community garden at SPACE, Inc. in Midland.

SPACE, Inc.
is one local company that has been heavily involved in the two years they have been a part of the program. The objectives of Midland Fresh fit perfectly with the company’s Random Acts of Kindness Program, which was started four years ago. To date, SPACE has donated more than 250 pounds of food to those in need.

“We strongly believe in community service at SPACE, Inc. and understand the importance of giving back. Our community garden has been a fun way to get employees at SPACE involved as well as help people in need in our local community,” says Paddy Hobohm, director of operations at SPACE.
Paddy Hobohm, Director of Operations at SPACE, Inc.
“We were aware there was a need and we decided as a team that this would be a great way to make a positive impact It has also been very educational for those who don’t know how to garden and we plan to expand on both our garden and our Random Acts of Kindness program,” says Hobohm.

This year the community gardens are housed at Chapel Lane Presbyterian Church, Messiah Lutheran Church, Memorial Presbyterian Church, Caregiving Network, Midland Nazarene Church, Midland Christian School and SPACE, Inc.

Eventually Faust hopes that the mobile food stand will pave the way for each community garden being able to serve its own surrounding neighborhood.

“We’ll always be reaching out and going into new areas with Midland Fresh, but what would it be like if one day a Memorial Presbyterian Church Garden serviced their neighborhood, or Midland Nazarene serviced their neighborhood,” says Faust. “We’re a blessed community, but I’m hoping to help make us an intimate community. That’s how communities thrive and prosper.”

From schools to a private business, each garden come with its own twist. At Chapel Lane, Johanna Jozwiak is leading a new type of garden, one where individuals who might not have access to their own space but want to garden can access a patch of land to work in. The church is providing seeds as well as bringing in some of the master gardeners in town to help guide people and provide tips throughout the process.

Children at Midland Christian helping get planting underway in May.

“We found that a lot of people may want to garden, but because of being in an apartment or not having too much space aren’t able to have one of their own,” says Jozwiak, community garden team leader at Chapel Lane Presbyterian Church. “We want to create that escape where you can come as a family or an individual and spend time in the garden.”

At Longview School last year, the stand included an educational component as well where students from the preschool could pick out a fresh snack from the produce of the day.

“They get to wash it, cut it and prepare it,” says Faust. “It’s a way to learn about what you’re eating and to see that everything doesn’t just come from a grocery store.”

The community gardens are one element of a city-wide effort to raise awareness about food security

It is with this same spirit that Midland Christian School staff hope to bring to their students through this initiative. Whether it is preschool or students all the way up to second grade, planting and helping out in the gardens is a collaborative, teaching experience for all and some students even take turns watching over the gardens for the summer.

“They love to watch things grow, and they all help us harvest,” says Melissa Scherf, preschool teacher at Midland Christian. “It gives them the opportunity to taste new vegetables and learn about the different characteristics of each. If it is something they have been part of growing, they are more likely to try it too. We’ll have students who have never tried radishes before asking their parents to buy some the next time they are at the grocery store.”

While Midland Christian had cultivated it’s own garden for the past few years, this year Beth DeVries introduced the school to the Midland Fresh Mobile Stand. Now they are able to grow produce both for their own students to take home, as well as to contribute to families in the community.

“This is a natural extension of our mission as a school. Our purpose is to foster authentic faith with our children, and what better way to do that than give our students real life experiences in honoring and serving others,” says Betsy Hague, principal at Midland Christian School. “When Beth approached me with this idea, my first reaction was what do we need and how do we make that happen. It’s a beautiful opportunity for our students to interact with the earth and then see the fruits of that effort helping and giving back to families in need.”

Betsy Hague, principal at Midland Christian School

Planting day brought out over forty volunteers, from the community and United Way’s Young Leaders United program, to assist with garden preparation. United Way anticipates that over 150 volunteers from organizations throughout the community will help out over the course of the summer with weeding, harvesting and garden maintenance.

“Midland is a very fortunate community, and we are blessed to have generous people and organizations,” says Cianek. “But this initiative helps shine a light on issues you might not already know about.”

For more information on the gardens and the Midland Fresh initiative, or if you are interested in volunteering, you can contact Kurt Faust at kurt@coachstepup.com.
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