Nonprofit organizations have faced particularly acute problems in the wake of the pandemic — enduring the economic challenges that have befallen many while also struggling to provide needed services.
South Bend’s Unity Gardens found itself in that bind — and its response made the nonprofit one of five winners in the Innovate! TCU Business Challenge recognizing business members’ creative adaptation to the pandemic. Five winners received a total of $35,000, including $5,000 to Unity Gardens.
Unity Gardens exists to provide free, healthy food to people in need — promoting physical health through nutrition, social health through welcoming community gathering places and environmental health through urban green spaces.
Sales at the South Bend Farmers Market help support the Unity Gardens’ model. The pandemic, at first, brought that revenue to a screeching halt.
“People stopped shopping almost overnight,” Unity Gardens executive director Sara Stewart said. “We took a 50 percent or more hit on our sales revenue — about half of our programming is supported through those sales.”
With retailers cutting store hours or closing all stores in response to the virus, Unity Gardens knew that its local growing operations would be essential to help feed the community, especially people in need — a population that the pandemic would only increase. Unity Gardens need to find a way to continue its work.
“When you have to self-evaluate due to a crisis, I think that’s when you come up with either a) innovative solutions, or b) go back to core values,” Stewart said. “And some of both of that is what happened for us.”
Stewart and her partner in the garden and in life, Mitch Yaciw, made the counterintuitive decision to increase the amount of food they grew.
“Our very first reaction was, ‘People are going to be food insecure,’” Stewart said. “It’s why we build community, to take care of each other in times of need.”
They also envisioned that many people would want to start growing their own food and tend their own private gardens. That turned out to be prescient — their investment in selling plants and seeds provided Unity Gardens with a boost.
“It was walk of faith,” Stewart said.
They also started making online tutorials, “educational snippets where Mitch teaches people how to plant that tomato or how to do a lasagna garden,” Stewart said. “And that's been very helpful for families trying to connect to science curriculum or math or just gardening at home.”
The nonprofit hired new “garden guides” to help self-harvesters, and hosted kids’ activities like individual insect hunting, along with providing veggie tasting tours, lessons in composting and meditation in the Zen garden.
Unity Gardens also started offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, a program that provides fresh, healthy food while supporting the gardens.
The result has been a flourishing of Unity Gardens as a safe, self-sustaining, social gathering place.
“One Sunday morning I came out and there was a pastor out there doing his sermon, online, in the garden,” Yaciw said. “He felt like the garden was a place that was uplifting.”
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