The fight against hunger is the top priority of the Christian Community Service Center Garden

The garden at the Christian Community Service Center is in full bloom — with rows of plants sprouting toward the sunlight, destined to become fresh produce in the two nonprofit Houston food pantries.

The fight against hunger is a top priority for the organization, which links 39 churches in the region to maximize their outreach efforts.

Providing groceries to those in need is the cornerstone of the Centre’s emergency services program. Two food pantries — one in Greenway at 3434 Branard and another on St. Luke’s United Methodist Church campus Gethsemane, 6856 Bellaire — each dispense staple food packages designed by dietitians for optimal nutrition.

Pat Weatherspoon-Hall, program manager at CCSC Emergency Services-Southwest, explained that being overly generous is essential when it comes to feeding the hungry.

“As long as they arrive, we are able to help those in need,” she said. “They can come as often as they need.”

Some clients come once a week, others almost daily. And often they ask, “Are there any vegetables today?”

Since 2000, the CCSC Garden has provided fresh produce for food parcels. Building a green space dedicated to growing food for the hungry was the brainchild of Reverend Guinn Blackwell-Eagleson, then pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, one of the nonprofit’s member congregations. .

Karen Holloman, director of the CCSC program for basic needs and children, started the same year that the buzz started about starting a garden.

Blackwell-Eagleson proposed to build raised beds on a portion of the church parking lot that was not in use.

“She was onto something,” Holloman recalled.

The first harvest was in 2001 – and 1,520 pounds of produce distributed. In 2010, the Central Presbyterian garden produced 3,200 pounds of fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables.

That same year, construction was completed for a second garden plot on the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The first crop there added 3,755 pounds to the annual premium.

The sale of the Central Presbyterian Church campus in 2011 resulted in the closure of the original garden. St. Luke’s Gethsemane took over – and took on the challenge of feeding the hungry head.

A record year in 2013 saw the production of 9,956 books at the CCSC Garden. Last year, despite the devastation of winter storm Uri, 7,176 pounds of products were distributed.

To date, the CCSC Garden has supplied over 101,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to food pantries.

There have been a number of challenges along the way, Holloman said.

“Maintaining a garden is difficult,” she says.

Ron Smith, one of the garden’s managers, said difficulties ranged from storm damage to poor drainage. Also, at some point, the garden had to move from one part of St. Luke’s campus to another.

When a windstorm destroyed the greenhouse, volunteers rebuilt it. And then they rebuilt it when the garden moved.

During the recent frost, the orchard was lost. With the help of donors, there are now 14 citrus trees and two avocado trees growing.

Another challenge was maintaining the operation during COVID. Volunteers have split into teams to keep the garden running safely throughout the pandemic.

The volunteers faced tragedy with the death of their original master gardener, Kenneth Dorman, who devoted around 15 years to the project. There is now a plaque in his honor on the site.

Smith began volunteering in the garden after retiring in 2009. He had never heard of CCSC before.

“It was the garden that attracted me,” he said. “Now I appreciate the work of CCSC. »

An active member and deacon in his own congregation, Smith teaches Bible study, sings in the choir, volunteers with VBS, and goes on mission trips. He sees the tillage at the CCSC garden as a way to continue to build faith.

“I love being outdoors, I love nurturing and growing things,” he said. “I appreciate contributing to the needs of the less fortunate in the name of Christ. This opportunity is a win-win for me.

Margaret Weddle, also in charge of the garden, joined the garden in 2017. She had previously volunteered at CCSC. Weddle remembers his first day in the green space, when Smith handed him a packet of carrot seeds to sow. At first, she was afraid of making a mistake.

“He gave me this look that said, ‘It’s not rocket science. It’s seeds and dirt,’ she laughed. “I think about that now when I go from seeds to a new volunteer. That’s how I started.

Weddle said the need for volunteers remains constant.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who has the time,” she says. “I am happy to spend my time in this way to help those in need. There are all kinds of ministries to help people. This one speaks to me, it uses what I have to offer.

Having a green thumb is not mandatory.

“We’ll put you to work,” Weddle said. “There’s something for everyone,” whether it’s picking vegetables, pushing a wheelbarrow or preparing a raised bed for your next planting.

About 12-15 volunteers usually show up, meeting on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Saturday sessions are also held monthly.

“Either we harvest, fill the beds, prune the tomato vines, put the tomatoes in cages — different things depending on the season,” Smith said. “There aren’t many days when you show up, and there’s nothing to do.”

There are grounds to maintain, mowing to do, weeds to pull out and seeds to plant. Watering, harvesting and composting are on the program.

Elizabeth Castro, one of CCSC Garden’s longtime members and master gardener, has been instrumental in maintaining the organic garden, Weddle said.

Most plants in the garden are grown from seeds in the greenhouse. There are storage sheds full of tools and a scout troop has added a pergola to the grounds. Rainwater is collected and then routed through drip irrigation controlled by timers.

There are now 26 beds, filled with vegetables, herbs and fruit, as well as the orchard and two rows of vines.

“We grow 12 months out of the year,” Smith said. “One of Houston’s advantages is that it is suitable for gardening almost year-round.”

In winter, the garden grows cilantro, lettuce, cabbage, kale and collard greens, as well as root vegetables like beets, radishes, turnips, carrots and onions. Current crops include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and melons.

After harvest, volunteers bring the food in to be weighed, recorded and divided between CCSC’s two pantries, Holloman said.

“Every day we serve customers facing hunger and food insecurity,” she said. “Being able to have our own source of fresh produce appeals to us so much. It’s just a bonus for our customers – and they appreciate it so much.

Weatherspoon-Hall is grateful to St. Luke’s Gethsemane for the space and utilities needed to maintain the CCSC Garden.

She oversees the garden team and creates recipes, in Spanish and English, featuring the fresh produce to share with customers.

“We see their faces light up when they see the fresh produce,” Weatherspoon-Hall said. “We give them a mix of what happens every day, as much as we can, until they run out.”

Every day, she estimates, the pantries serve 80 to 90 families.

“Multiply that by five days a week in both locations,” Weatherspoon-Hall said. “We were able to help so many people. And with the adjoining garden, it makes everything better.

Holloman added that volunteers have grown the garden for the past 20 years — with a limited annual budget of $3,000 per year.

“It’s a loaves and fishes thing here,” she said. “It’s quite magical to see this happen.”

Peyton is a freelance writer based in Houston.

Norma P. Rex