Michiana Chronicles: Unity Gardens

Mar 29, 2019

Sara Stewart, President and Executive Director of Unity Gardens
Credit Sid Shroyer

On a windy, wet Wednesday morning in the middle of March, Sara Stewart, the president and executive director of Unity Gardens, is out in the field, at the Main Garden, seven acres of urban farm land, between Prast Boulevard and Ardmore Trail near Honeywell and Beacon Heights, on the west side of
South Bend.

“This is our flagship garden,” she says. “We are a seven acre urban eco-system out here and through this one we support the neighborhood Unity Gardens. Most of them are much, much smaller, they’re volunteer run, and we provide seeds and plants, and guidance. The only caveat is that it has to be diverse people coming together, freely sharing food.”

Sara, who started 11 years ago with a single plot on the near south side, now oversees gardens that stretch from Walkerton to Granger, with most of them where she started, in the areas of the greatest need for access to healthy food, in the poor neighborhoods of South Bend.

With spring fighting winter over the soul of this gray day, Sara Stewart shows Beacon Health’s Sarah Walsh and Savino Rivera, and me, the lay of the land.

It’s 9:00 in the morning and Sara is shivering with us in the damp cold. But it’s her energy that carries her three followers through the mist across the wet ground.

“I’ve had the flu,” Sara tells us. “But, I’m better now."

For the next hour she explains while we walk and listen.

“Unity Gardens is where people come together and grow food for everyone,” she says.

It’s not easy to count a number for “everyone.” It’s self-serve, 24-7, but the Garden Guides who documented evening visits last year in the active growing season counted over four thousand people, and Sara says they served 62-hundred in the programs, gardens and classes.

There are a lot more plots than the one or two you see on your standard drive around town. There’s one at El Campito, one at the Islamic Center, and one at the Jewish Federation. They are at IUSB and Bethel College, at Notre’s Dame Center for Arts and Culture on West Washington and at Logan Center for people
with disabilities on East Jefferson. Altogether, 46. It’s a patchwork of humanity markers.

“Unity Gardens started by accident,” Sara Stewart says. “I’m a nurse.”

In 2008, Sara was also teaching, teaching her St. Mary’s College students about the effects of poverty on health. On field trips to places like Hope Ministries, her students would tell folks they should watch what they eat, but then notice that choice was not in their list of daily opportunities.

Sara tells us, “This went on for about six years,” and adds, “I thought, ‘this is stupid.’”

“Here we are in the farm belt,” she says, “and our most vulnerable people can not get healthy food. And it costs what, a dollar for a pack of seeds?”

That’s when Sara told a homeless friend that she was considering starting a garden in the Studebaker corridor area, near where a lot of people sleep outside.

“And he’s like: ‘A garden, I used to garden with my grandma.’”

“I thought, ‘Cool, they like my garden idea,’” Sara says. She remembers thinking, “’But wait a minute, I teach this stuff. When you are in a culture of poverty you are not reflecting on your past with fond memories. You’re not looking forward to the future with your goals and aspirations. The crisis of the
moment is here and now survival. And yet when I shared my garden idea, one person recollected on a fond memory and another person looked forward with hope.’”

Sara calls it her “ah-hah moment,” an empowerment model.

“The garden is such a great equalizer,” she says. “We all look a little dirty and disheveled, so the person who is homeless looks just the same as the professors who come out here to pull weeds for an hour.

“So, what happens when you get all these diverse people together is that other opportunities sprout. That’s the magic of Unity Gardens.”

Sara says that “ah-hah moment” led her to create an email list that grew from five on that day to 1,200 by the end of 2008.

In every year since, Unity Gardens has grown, with the help of municipalities, non-profits and for-profits, and people, who see the sense and see the value. There are now summer wellness programs, a summer camp, and pot-luck picnics, award-winning honey, and chickens and goats and bees in a “Children’s Discovery Area.”

Sara says, “Statistics are showing that kids who participate in Unity Garden programming continue to have healthy lifestyles in both eating and exercise after being with us.”

The annual Growing Summit of classes at the downtown library attracted 500 people a week and a half before my visit. Work and fundraising continues on a new Community Learning Center.

“What I get out of it,” she told me later, “is purpose. Quality of life is intertwined with the ‘why’ of our existence,” Sara Stewart says, “and I feel grateful to have discovered my ‘why.’  Leaving this earth better in some small way, because of who I have been here is central to my spirituality.”

It’s Sara’s life, now, but she never stopped being a nurse. “This is nursing,” she says. “Florence Nightingale would approve.”

Music: "On The Turning Away" by Pink Floyd