Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh churches, synagogue feed the need

Bryson McInnis, 2, and his brother Nolan McInnis, 7, dig a hole for a cabbage plant as church member Sherry Bennett assists them during a garden blessing at St. James United Methodist Church last Sunday.
Bryson McInnis, 2, and his brother Nolan McInnis, 7, dig a hole for a cabbage plant as church member Sherry Bennett assists them during a garden blessing at St. James United Methodist Church last Sunday. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The broccoli, turnips, radishes and Brussels sprouts, just recently sown, are not yet visible to the eye. The geometrically precise vegetable beds in Raleigh show little today but rich, organic topsoil and one rectangular patch of cabbage sprouts.

But last Sunday, as cars whizzed by on New Hope Road, this modest community garden at the St. James United Methodist Church brought together local ministers, families, worshipers and a rabbi, all for a ritual blessing that included songs of praise in English and Spanish.

The vegetable beds are the work of days and weeks, the effort of seven churches, a synagogue, a Danish biotech company and a Wake Forest Boy Scout working toward his Eagle Scout rank. The garden project, dedicated Sunday in an outdoor ceremony, is just the latest local effort designed to meet what organizers call an invisible crisis amid the leafy suburbs of Northeast Raleigh.

Just in the past decade, local church leaders say, a dramatic demographic shift has taken place in nearby neighborhoods. Middle class families that had lived here for years began moving out and were replaced by people of lesser means, many of them Hispanic.

At Wilburn Elementary School, more than 63 percent of its 741 students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, one of the highest rates in Wake County. That points to a deeper underlying social challenge, say the religious organizers who are trying to address it.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the congregations in the New Hope Alliance community garden group, has organized a Backpack Buddy system, sending food home to help keep area students nourished during the weekend. They’ve trained literacy tutors for students and organized Sunday Undie drives to make sure kids are fully clothed at school.

Organizers are about to start a “middle class express” mentoring program for parents and guardians, and they are also planning to formalize their efforts with a 501(c)(3) legal designation as a nonprofit so they can engage in charitable fundraising.

“The people who live in the community have seen the community change drastically,” said Mickey Strong, chairman of the missions committee at the St. James United Methodist Church. “Many of them now are the working poor.”

The intent of the community garden is to get fresh vegetables to local community food banks. A number of Triangle churches have opted for community gardens as sources of locally grown greens and also for the biblical symbolism of rebirth and renewal.

But even a handful of vegetable plots proved to be a significant undertaking. The idea for the project was born at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, but that congregation balked when it looked at the potential municipal water bill for irrigating raised vegetable beds in a North Carolina summer.

St. James, however, had an abandoned well on its site and was able to get it repaired with volunteer help. Volunteers, including two dozen Boy Scouts, also provided the labor to assembled the vegetable bed walls. The planks alone cost more than $400 to the family of Austin Holland, a 16-year-old Wake Forest High School student who coordinated the project for his Eagle Scout badge. The soil was donated by Novozymes and trucked in from the Danish firm’s Franklinton facility.

In all, Holland spent 27 hours completing the garden in the past month.

“We spread everybody out to make sure nobody was standing around,” Holland said.

Volunteer groups included St. Mark’s, St. James, Trinity Presbyterian, Longview Baptist, Iglesia Bautista Renovación Cristiana and Yavneh, a Jewish Renewal congregation.

Organizers plan to expand the garden from its current eight beds, add a drip irrigation system, and protect their crops from foraging deer, rabbits and geese with metal fences.

“When you work together, the load is lighter,” Strong said.