Sara Stewart, President and Executive Director,
of Unity Gardens Spoke to the Club
The Sergeant at Arms Mike Christofeno, who dolled out numerous fines in a matter of minutes. The money the Sergeant’s committee raises over the year is pooled into a fund and then disbursed annually to area non-profit organizations.
The speaker was Sara Stewart RN, MSN Executive Director of the Unity Gardens.
The Unity Gardens 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.

Unity  Gardens provides fresh healthy food for anyone.

Unity Gardens brings diverse people together.

Unity Gardens provides education empowering the community to grow its own healthy food.

Each Unity Garden has two criteria: 

1. Diverse people coming together to grow a garden.

2. Sharing the food grown in the garden with the community. 

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 visit:  
Up Coming Program(s):  
October 10--Pete McCown, President of Community Foundation of Elkart County
October 17--Congresswoman Jackie Walorski