Location: Main garden at 3701 Prast Blvd, South Bend, IN; 40+ other gardens in St. Joseph County
History/Mission: I met Sara Stewart at the Unity Gardens booth in the South Bend Farmers Market. It was early December; holiday decorations sparkled from all directions and Christmas music played in the background of the hustle and bustle in the building. Sara is the founder, president, and executive director of Unity Gardens, the “first dignified free food model in the nation.” Her enthusiasm bleeds into everything she does, from welcoming me to interview her to interacting with every customer who stopped by. The organization is responsible for the collection of small urban gardens you see sprinkled around South Bend. These gardens are open to the public, meaning you could go and pick whatever is growing there right now, free of charge. Sara became interested in the free food model while teaching nursing at St. Mary’s College. Specializing in community health, she often took her classes to the poorest areas of South Bend to conduct free health screenings. Sara soon realized that the healthy food she and her students were recommending to combat the heart disease and obesity that plagued these neighborhood was simply not available. South Bend’s food deserts are a serious issue not only for the physical health of those living there, but also for the community’s culture and economic growth.
That’s why, in 2008, Sara decided to start Unity Gardens. Within a year, the organization became a non-profit and moved its headquarters its current seven-acre property on the west side of South Bend. This large urban garden has developed over the past nine years to include an outdoor classroom, a pollination garden with beehives, demonstration gardens, goats, chickens, and more. In addition to this main garden, Unity Gardens supports over 40 satellite gardens around St. Joseph County. These micro-communities work to combat poverty in South Bend by placing people of all socioeconomic classes in the same environment with a single, positive goal. Brought to the garden by a passion for urban environmental restoration, food injustice, poverty, nutrition, bee populations, community health, or just a longing to bite into a fresh, organic strawberry, people from all walks of life participate and contribute to the gardens. Conversations flow, opportunities arise, no one feels like they’re giving or receiving handouts, and people learn valuable skills. Unity Gardens hosts free classes throughout the year for people in the community to learn about all aspects of gardening. They also host summer wellness programs and a free summer camp to keep kids involved all year. Raising money by selling produce and their award-winning honey in the off-season at farmers markets, writing grants, and collecting donations from the community, Unity Gardens plans to expand even more in the future with a new building with office space, classrooms, an indoor/outdoor market, and event spaces.
Get involved: There are plenty of ways for you to get involved at Unity Gardens, big and small! Of course you can stop by any garden and harvest what’s growing. With a quick text to Sara or anyone else on her team, you can get a tour of the gardens or schedule a time to volunteer. The organization hosts events all through the year, including free classes, “Perfect Pairings” events with South Bend chefs, and potluck dinners. You can stop by the Unity Garden booth at the South Bend Farmers Market any Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday to chat with the team, try their honey, browse their selection of fresh greens, or buy a locally-made candle. If you fall in love with Unity Gardens, the organization takes on 10 paid interns every summer to help with operations, exposing them to all sides of a non-profit business, gardening, community organizing, and tons more. But Sara insists the best way to make an impact for Unity Gardens is to encourage dialogue about the social, economic, health, and social justice issues plaguing our communities.
Contact: 574-315-4361| firstname.lastname@example.org |www.theunitygardens.org/