Unity Mission / Story

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The Unity Mission
To improve community health:

Physically by increasing accessibility of fruits and vegetables as well as providing education on nutrition and food preparation.

Socially by providing education, increased social capital, and opportunities for the disadvantaged

Economically: by developing a sustainable local food system, recapturing food waste, creating new jobs, and increasing per-capita productivity

The gardens provide food for those in need & bring diverse people together to grow, harvest, share, and eat healthy food.

Each Unity Garden has two criteria: diverse people coming together to grow food and a sharing component.

Our Story
The Unity Gardens Inc. is a collaborative network of community gardens originated to increase the availability, awareness, and accessibility of healthy, locally grown food. Each Unity Garden has two criteria; diverse people coming together to grow food and a sharing component. The gardens provide food for any in need & bring diverse people together to grow, harvest, share, and eat healthy food. The Unity Gardens Inc. surrounds community gardens with the resources and systems needed to ensure success with growing food while developing partnerships with area businesses, government, universities, schools, churches, nonprofits, and neighbors.

The mission is to improve community health -- physically, socially, and economically. The Unity Gardens will reduce chronic illness and obesity within the community via education and increased accessibility of fruits and vegetables. The Unity Gardens will improve social health by providing unconditional free food and opportunities for the disadvantaged. The Unity Gardens will improve local economic vitality by developing a sustainable local food system, recapturing food waste, creating new jobs, and increasing per-capita productivity.

The first Unity Garden started with an idea, vacant land, conversations with local homeless residents, and a bit of gardening experience. Inspired to action by a seminar on urban development and the enthusiasm of area residents, I began "sprouting" the idea of planting a vegetable garden in the downtown South Bend area.

As a backyard gardener and a public health nursing instructor, I had the skills to both start a garden and inform the community. In April, with help from volunteers, I started working the soil. I also started communication about the garden's progress, both in person and via e-mail. Messages of growing food and growing community, sowing seeds of sharing, and finally "We Are Growing More than Vegetables Here" permeated the garden stories.

The enthusiasm grew as well, sprouting action and donations from service organizations, governmental entities, and local colleges. The media helped spread the word, and the community responded with more support. After three  seasons, there are now close to 50 Unity gardens in the South Bend area, and  with partners helping such as The Saint Joseph County Health Department, The Purdue Extension, The Troyer Group, Barnes and Thornburg, Memorial Hospital, The Center for a Sustainable Future, and the Indiana Department of Corrections Youth Facility.

Health care costs of chronic illness, obesity, and cardiac disease, correlated to poor nutrition and decreased per capita productivity is a problem for our community. In the St. Joseph Co. Community Health Assessment, 61% of county residents reported being overweight or obese. 80% of these reported not seeking the advice of a health professional to improve or combat this. In addition to providing healthy food, Unity Gardens include an educational component to help community members improve their health. Consistent with the objectives identified by the USDA's Healthy People 2010 and 2020, Unity Gardens help reduce the incidence of chronic illness and obesity through prevention and education.

The literature reveals ways that community gardens revitalize communities. They reduce crime, create income opportunities, encourage neighborhood, economic, and community development, reduce family food budgets, stimulate social and cross-cultural interaction, and improve quality of life for residents. Disadvantaged residents indicate the gardens provide meaningful service opportunities, increased community connections, and a pathway for social change. In 2008 and 2009 the gardens were fully harvested.

Decreased availability and accessibility of healthy food cause people in poverty to suffer disproportionately from chronic illness, which further reduces their ability to become productive community members. Poverty is the 3rd leading cause of death. Our entire community suffers from lack of per capita productivity. We pay for it literally through increased indigent health care costs, and indirectly through increased crime rates.

Quality of life decreases as community members are less connected. Unity Gardens primarily grow food, removing the crisis of the moment, yet the Unity Gardens also intervene multidimensionally. They will be hubs of activity year round as training centers, green houses and processing centers, providing areas to plan, educate, train, and employ people. Produce grown in the gardens will be used in restaurants, schools, hospitals, pantries, farmer's markets, and groceries, further increasing the appreciation and demand for locally grown, healthy food. Food waste will be recaptured and composted to increase the food yield and job production even more, while simultaneously reducing landfill waste. The entire community will become a model of sustainable growth!

The Unity Gardens will improve the physical health of the community through developing a collaborative network of community gardens; encouraging and supporting those growing food. Although the Unity Gardens grew from one garden to 13 in the 2009 season, the food supply was still less than the demand. So in 2010 we had 34 gardens . There was increased neighborhood involvement , and much more food to harvest. We will continue partner with other community members to grow more food in 2011.

The Unity Gardens will decrease rates of obesity and chronic illness through education and increased accessibility of healthy fruits and vegetables. This will be measured by counting the number of community gardens & total square footage, conducting food surveys and diet plans, tracking USDHHS statistics on produce consumption (Healthy People 2020). By partnering with Memorial Hospital and the St Joseph County Health Dept, HP-NWS weight, mean cholesterol levels, county death rates from diabetes and heart disease will be compared each year.

The gardens will also improve the community's social health by developing opportunities for diverse and vulnerable populations to gather, collaborate, and support each other. The Unity Gardens will build community by bringing neighbors and groups together in shared garden activities and educational events. Sign-in sheets will track the participation rates. Greenhouse events will host groups to come together to sprout seeds. Educational events will highlight growing tips, composting, nutrition, canning, and food preparation. Schools, universities, and camps will participate in service learning, internships, and continuing education on a variety of topics including sustainable food systems, global petroleum issues, and studies investigating childhood malnutrition and hunger. Crime rates in garden census tracks or zip codes will be used to measure crime reduction.

The Unity gardens will stimulate economic development through food processing, waste recovery, and developing a marketable product for sale, all of which create jobs. Per capita income and unemployment rates will be compiled to demonstrate economic development stimulated from job creation surrounding food processing, food sales, and waste recapturing. Numbers of industry consumers (businesses, hospitals, schools, restaurants, etc.) of the marketable Unity products will be assessed to determine specific Unity economic growth.

The Unity Gardens is a unique and holistic public health initiative, working with a variety of organizations to stimulate economic development in an action-oriented and health focused manor through developing a new, local, sustainable food system. This has resonated as something worthwhile to others. The Unity Gardens continues to be propelled to success through the support of the community; media, collegiate, business, local government, hospital, etc.

What is most unique about the Unity Gardens is an approach based on unconditional sharing. Through empowerment & facilitative education, the Unity Gardens are vehicles for economic recovery as well as health care promotion. The Unity Gardens bring people together in the garden space, then surround them with resources and opportunities for health, education, and internship. The Unity Gardens intervene simply (as in feeding a hungry family) or complexly, thwarting contextual barriers and other multidimensional factors contributing to poverty. The Unity Gardens have captured widespread support as an effective grass roots strategy to improve life for the entire community.

For more information, including volunteer opportunities, monetary donations, or starting your own Unity Garden please feel free to call or e-mail.

Looking Forward,

Sara Stewart RN MSN Executive Director Unity Gardens Inc