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Posted on Tue, Jul 28, 2009 : 1:35 p.m.

Congregations combine faith and food for community

By Jessica Kerman

Some Washtenaw County churches, mosques and synagogues are hoping others will reap what their congregations have sown.

About a dozen places of worship in the area have planted and will soon be harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables from their own gardens as part of an initiative to feed the hungry. The Food and Faith initiative is part of a partnership between the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Growing Hope and Food Gatherers.

The initiative is one of four projects to receive funding from a total $92,000 grant through the Ann Arbor Community Grant Foundation and the Pfizer Big Idea Grant. About $20,000 of that goes toward the Faith and Food initiative, said Missy Orge, director of outreach and training for Food Gatherers.

In late 2008, a study (pdf) conducted found that only 13 percent of those surveyed eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The main barrier respondents expressed in the survey was the cost of produce.

“The goal was to find a quick and sustainable way to connect low income people with healthy food,” Orge said. “A lot of congregations were already in the business in hunger relief, and they wanted know how they could help.” Merilynne Rush, coordinator of the project through Growing Hope, said the initiative originally set a goal for six participating groups, and more than a dozen have started gardens.

“It’s really amazing just how many people have gotten on board and have grasped the idea,” she said.

More than 8,500 square feet of space was used to plant the congregational gardens, Rush said.

At St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Jeff Stokes was eager to volunteer with the set-up of the church’s garden. “The church decided they wanted to do the project, and I was asked to join in because it fits with my skill set,” Stokes, who farms a few acres at home, said. “I think it’s a great way to give back to the community.” Some of the gardens have already started harvesting food, Rush said. St. Andrews Episcopal Church started four 4-by-8 raised beds at its downtown location. It has already donated between 30 and 40 pounds of food to Food Gatherers, she said.

The food goes to individuals and programs that work to feed people in need. Rush said the next step would be for the congregations to join in an effort to create a hoop house, which is similar to a greenhouse, so that food can be grown year round.

“That would be the natural offshoot of a program like this. That’s an idea waiting to happen,” Rush said. “It’s been really exciting and really wonderful to work with people all eager to do this and to have this kind of community building.”