When Sara Stewart walked into the South Bend Redevelopment Commission meeting Thursday morning, Dec. 11, she was a little nervous.
Stewart is the founder and executive director of Unity Gardens, a community garden network in South Bend. She and her organization have been quietly raising money to buy the LaSalle Square property where the Unity hub garden has been operating since 2009.
This morning, the redevelopment commission took a vote on whether to sell the property to Unity Gardens for $10,000. Stewart had already raised most of the money, ready to close the deal right away if the commission approved.
As it turned out, the commission not only approved the sale, but also made an amendment to lower the price to $1.
“It was totally unexpected,” said Stewart, still a little breathless when she spoke with Flavor 574 that afternoon. “Now we can use that money for infrastructure and beautification — we’ll have the ability to do more right away.”
Time to put down roots
Unity Gardens is a network of around 50 community gardens across the South Bend area, aiming to build community and provide free, healthy food in neighborhoods that desperately need both.
The hub garden at LaSalle Square is where Unity Gardens grows food for its CSA program, and is home to an open educational garden where people can learn how to plan and grow their own community gardens. It’s located in the center of several neighborhoods with very diverse populations — with little access to healthy food sources.
“We’ve been building relationships in a neighborhood that sometimes suffers from fear of each other … the garden brings them together so they begin interacting like a community,” Stewart said.
The property has been on a revolving lease from the redevelopment commission since 2009 — which meant Unity Gardens couldn’t build any permanent structures, and if a developer became interested in the space, the garden would have to move out.
“The more we invested in that garden and that community, the harder it would be to move,” Stewart said. “It was time to own it ourselves and be a permanent resource for the community.”
Plans to grow
At the top of Stewart’s list for what’s next is an educational center to house the organization’s offices and indoor classroom space. That will allow classes to happen year-round, and create a central gathering place.
She also wants to build a third greenhouse, partially underground to use geothermal energy to regulate temperature. The existing two greenhouses use solar power and hydroponics. Aside from increasing the garden’s capacity for year-round growing, these alternative energies and growing methods provide another educational opportunity.
A shaded shelter and raspberry and strawberry patches are also planned, as ways to make people from nearby neighborhoods feel welcome. Improvements to the garden’s two bee hives will allow the group to sell more of its “Honey from the Hood” products to help support itself.
Stewart said she would eventually like to build a roadside stand to sell produce from the garden, and a place where visiting chefs can hold demonstrations.
Plenty more work to do
Unity Gardens raised much of the money for its centralization project through Indiana’s Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits. People who donate $100 or more to the project can get tax credits that pay back 50 percent of the contribution. So, someone who donates $200 gets a $100 tax credit. Stewart said it helps fundraising by making people’s donations go further.
The organization is able to award around $14,500 in tax credits, which means raising up to $29,000 for the project. So far, Stewart said, they’ve raised just over $10,000 toward that goal.
“We did the fundraising kind of quietly because we didn’t know if we would get the land,” she said, “but now it’s time to get loud.”
To learn more about Unity Gardens and find out how to help, visit theunitygardens.org.