spilling the beans

Building the Future: Unity Gardens puts down roots

By | February 27, 2017
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Unity Gardens' new Community Learning Center Rendering by Borkholder Buildings

South Bend’s much-loved nonprofit Unity Gardens plans to break ground this spring on a new permanent structure at its LaSalle Square base. 

For the last eight years, founder Sara Stewart and her Unity Gardens team have been steadily mounting a cultural value shift. Their unique, “no strings attached” free-food model is thriving in more than 40 gardens, some in the area’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. 

Stewart describes the goal of the organization as empowerment and creating “a safety net of healthy food that no one can take away” even in times of economic instability. She’d like to erase the lines between those helping and those being helped. In the garden, everyone is equal. 

The hub of their operations, on South Bend’s west side, is a seven-acre urban ecosystem including two acres of open edible gardens, chickens, beehives, goats, native wildflowers, teaching gardens, a monarch butterfly way station and much more. This spring, they will add a Community Learning Center. 

Since 2011, Unity Gardens has offered free classes on topics such as environmental issues, composting, gardening, animal care and food preparation. With support from Memorial Hospital, the Health Department and other partners, they hold a two-week summer Garden Camp for kids as well as a new Lunch and Learn nutrition program, community potlucks with chef demonstrations, and a 10-week series of growing classes. 

These programs have been wildly successful: More than 80 area youths attended the summer camp last year and over 100 people a day visit the LaSalle Square garden during the peak harvest season. The Learning Center will allow the team at Unity to expand its programming year-round and to provide a consistent presence in a neighborhood where it has created deep connections. 

Photo 1: Photos by Leanne Uzelac
Photo 2: Plans for Unity Gardens' new Community Learning Center

The 5,000-square-foot structure will house classrooms, offices, a greenhouse, a demonstration kitchen and a garage. An indoor market area will showcase Unity’s award-winning Honey from the Hood and other garden- and bee-related products for fundraising. 

Borkholder Buildings, a Nappanee company specializing in eco-friendly design, donated the initial plans that include, notably, saving the cottonwood tree on the building site. It will provide shade for the overhang porch in front, which faces the neighborhood and welcomes it in. The classrooms will be on the other side of the center, leading out to the gardens behind it. 

Everything in the gardens is thoughtfully designed to encourage community well-being. There is a children’s discovery garden near the chicken coops, with a playground and benches where families can relax together. A “fruit oasis” orchard is planned for the area by the Success Academy charter school, with a shelter near the road that will also serve as a much-needed bus stop. A permanent home is the last piece for ensuring the organization’s sustainability, allowing it to extend its mission and provide a model for other communities. 

A grant from the Redevelopment Commission was an important impetus for the project, augmented by contributions from other community and government organizations, foundations and private donors, but Unity Gardens is still gathering donations to reach its funding goal. To donate, or for more information, please contact Sara Stewart at growunitygardens@yahoo.com

Unity Gardens

Unity Gardens regularly holds gardening, preserving, and cooking classes, and hosts an annual Growing Summit every March at the St Joseph County Public Library Main Branch. Check their website regularly for details about their classes and other activities.

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