Combating hunger is top priority for Christian Community Service Center Garden – Houston Chronicle


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Lindsay Peyton, CorrespondentMay 22, 2022

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1of7Christian Community Service Center community garden volunteer Margaret Weddle, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Houston.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

2of7Christian Community Service Center community garden coordinator Ron Smith plants a tree May 14.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

3of7Christian Community Service Center community garden volunteer Margaret Weddle works with a melon plant at the community garden, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Houston.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

4of7Christian Community Service Center community garden volunteers look for cucumbers.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

5of7The CCSC Garden has contributed more than 101,000 pounds of fruits and veggies to food pantries.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

6of7Christian Community Service Center community garden volunteer Margaret Weddle, left, looks for cucumbers with another volunteer at the community garden, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Houston.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

7of7Fresh bell peppers and fresh eggplants grown at the Christian Community Service Center community garden, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Houston.Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less

The Christian Community Service Center Garden is in full bloom — with rows of plants pushing toward the sunlight, destined to become fresh produce at the faith-based nonprofit’s two Houston food pantries.

Combating hunger is one of the top priorities for the organization, which connects 39 area churches to maximize their outreach efforts.

Providing groceries to those in need is a cornerstone of the Center’s Emergency Services program. Two food pantries — one in Greenway at 3434 Branard and another on the campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church Gethsemane campus, 6856 Bellaire — each dole out packages of staples designed by dietitians for optimal nutrition.

Pat Weatherspoon-Hall, program manager at CCSC Emergency Services-Southwest, explained that erring on the side of generosity is key when it comes to feeding the hungry.

“As long as they come in, we’re 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 the food packages. Building a greenspace dedicated to growing food for the hungry was the brainchild of the Rev. Guinn Blackwell-Eagleson, then pastor at Central Presbyterian Church, one of the member congregations of the nonprofit.

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

Blackwell-Eagleson proposed building raised beds on a portion of the church’s 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. By 2010, the garden at Central Presbyterian was producing 3,200 pounds of fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables.

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

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

A banner year in 2013 saw the production of 9,956 pounds at the CCSC Garden. Last year, despite the devastation of Winter Storm Uri, 7,176 pounds of produce were distributed.

To date, the CCSC Garden has contributed more than 101,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to the food pantries.

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

“Maintaining a garden is hard,” she said.

Ron Smith, one of the garden leads, said difficulties have ranged from storm damage to improper drainage. In addition, at one point, the garden had to move from one part of the St. Luke’s campus to another.

When a wind storm blew apart the greenhouse, volunteers rebuilt it. And then they built it again when the garden relocated.

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

Another challenge was keeping the operation going during COVID. Volunteers separated into teams to safely keep the garden running throughout the pandemic.

Volunteers faced a tragedy with the death of their original Master Gardener, Kenneth Dorman, who dedicated about 15 years to the project. There now rests a plaque in his honor on the site.

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

“It was the garden that drew me in,” he said. “Now, I’ve come to appreciate the work of CCSC.”

An active member and deacon of his own congregation, Smith teaches Bible study, sings in the choir, volunteers with VBS and goes on mission trips. He considers toiling in the soil at the CCSC Garden as a way to continue building faith.

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

Margaret Weddle, also a garden lead, signed up with the garden in 2017. She had volunteered previously at CCSC. Weddle recalls her first day in the greenspace, when Smith handed her a packet of carrot seeds to sow. At first, she worried about making a mistake.

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

Weddle said the need for volunteers remains constant.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who has the time,” she said. “I’m glad to spend my time in this way to help those who need it. There are all types of ministries to help people. This one speaks to me, it makes use of what I have to offer.”

Having a green thumb is not required.

“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 its next planting.

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

“We are either getting a crop out, filling the beds, trimming tomato vines, putting tomatoes in cages — different things in different seasons,” Smith said. “There aren’t many days when you show up, and there’s nothing to do.”

There are grounds to keep, mowing to do, weeds to pull and seeds to plant. Watering, harvesting and composting are on the list.

Elizabeth Castro, one of the CCSC Garden’s longtime members and a Master Gardener, has been critical to maintaining the organic garden, Weddle said.

Most of the plants in the garden are raised from seeds in the greenhouse. There are storage sheds full of tools, and a Boy Scout troop added a pergola to the grounds. Rainwater is collected, and later routed through drip irrigation controlled by timers.

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

“We grow 12 months a year,” Smith said. “One of the good things about Houston is it’s suitable for gardening almost all year round.”

In the 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 harvesting, volunteers bring the food to weigh, record and divide between the two CCSC food pantries, Holloman said.

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

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

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

“We see their faces light up when they see the fresh produce,” Weatherspoon-Hall said. “We give them a mixture of what comes in each day, as much as we can, until it runs out.”

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

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

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

“That’s a loaves-and-fishes story right here,” she said. “It’s pretty magical to see it happen.”

Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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