In Santa Ana, California, a paved parking lot has become a garden paradise, with 92 raised beds in steel tubs, a specially designed irrigation system that virtually eliminates water waste and dual-language cooking demonstrations.
In Audubon, Pennsylvania, 10 acres of long-fallow land are now bursting with watermelons, squash, mushrooms, honeybees and composting stations.
In a downtown Memphis garden/park, unhoused people now have a safe, clean space for coffee and community, a space they also had a hand in designing.
In Alaska, Kansas and Kentucky, refugees are learning to farm in once-strange lands they now call home, supplementing their income and seeding promising futures. The cultivation of these community-owned gardens and farms has become a powerful tool of accompaniment for Catholic Charities, which partners with the U.S. Bishops Conference to resettle refugees across the country.
These are just a handful of the many community gardens and farms operated by Catholic Charities agencies across the country.
Large or small, urban or rural, whether producing food for farmers’ markets or acting primarily as a gathering space, the gardens and farms link individuals to neighbors and neighbors to service providers. Some grew organically from a desire to better serve longstanding clients, such as those experiencing homelessness, while others were founded specifically to serve refugees who have resettled into new countries and communities. The through line is a belief in the social and emotional value of getting hands dirty and coaxing new life out of the soil.
From root to rise and seed to supper, what they share is a mission to feed people, body and soul.
An Urban Oasis
Garden of Hope, Orange County, California
“It was a concrete jungle,” said Ellen Roy, diocesan director of Catholic Charities of Orange County; the Garden of Hope in Santa Ana, California, is one of their ministries. The agency’s Cantley Food Distribution Center is adjacent to the garden and participates in the CalFresh Healthy Living program. Located in an outpost of warehouses in a low-income residential district, the food pantry largely draws Vietnamese and Hispanic families from the surrounding area who pick up supplemental food to feed their families.
“I like to take donors over to see our food distribution. It makes what we do very real, to see us actually feeding people, which is one of the most basic things we do as Catholic Charities,” said Roy, noting that it was a donor who suggested transforming the unused space into something more life-sustaining.
The garden, which produces tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cilantro, herbs and other produce that grows well in the California heat, celebrated its first anniversary in June 2022. Expansion plans are in the works, including a warehouse kitchen for regular cooking classes, events to draw in children and families, and community outreach to demonstrate the possibilities of vertical gardens, which are well-suited for apartment buildings that lack much outdoor space.
Everything that’s grown in the garden is distributed through the food pantry, which saw a huge uptick in clients during COVID-19's peak; recently, as inflation has driven up grocery prices, staff have seen another uptick in need. Since July 2020, the food pantry has distributed more than 6 million pounds of food to more than 700,000 people. Today, it serves 700 to 800 people a day, three days a week.
“We’re one of the wealthier counties in the country, and yet there are people who are struggling,” said Roy, who works beneath colorful murals of butterflies, bumblebees, saints and angels’ wings. “It really puts you up close and personal with Christ’s message to feed the poor.”
Just Outside the City
Martha’s Choice Marketplace & Community Farm, Philadelphia
The community of Audubon isn’t far from Philadelphia, but Martha’s Community Farm feels worlds apart. Its 10 acres have a wildness about them despite the ordered rows of crops.
A food forest with native pawpaws, hazelnuts and persimmons borders two sides. Fences decorated with colorful glass beads from artists who work with at-risk populations guard dozens of raised beds. An industrious groundhog pays no heed to Buster the farm dog, who pays no need to the groundhog.
This is a pandemic farm, begun in 2020 when St. Gabriel’s, a hulking brick structure across the street that operated first as a school and then as a residential treatment facility for vulnerable teens, closed after 122 years. The farm was once home to livestock cared for by adjudicated St. Gabe’s youth. While the building awaits transformation into a mixed-use facility with some senior housing, it sits unused, except as storage for food and dry goods intended for Martha’s Choice Marketplace, 10 miles away in Norristown.
The farm produced 25 crops and 5,000 pounds of food last year and has hosted summer camps for Hispanic youth groups and children with special needs. Volunteers and clients have planted crops and built beds, then returned to harvest the bounty.
“Our official mission is building community through access to healthy food,” said Eli Wenger, director of operations for the farm and pantry, which are projects of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Martha’s recently began an initiative that allows clients to keep some of the food they harvest while the rest goes to the pantry. And with the area’s growing Hispanic population, the crops – including tomatillos and cilantro – increasingly reflect the tastes of those they serve. “It’s about community engagement,” said Wenger.
The food pantry occupies a convent basement and packs an astonishing amount of activity into a series of low-slung rooms bustling with volunteers and chock-a-block with food. Staff instituted drive-up service during the pandemic in place of a walk-in client-choice pantry and distribute food to about 1,440 families (5,800 individuals) per month.
Martha’s is on pace to give away more than 2 million pounds of food in 2022 – more than twice the previous year and indicative of a “terrifying” amount of need, said Patrick Walsh, director of operations. It is the largest food pantry in the county, serving working families, seniors and persons with disabilities or the unemployed in equal measure.
“Many clients are coming out of the trauma of poverty,” and it’s important they be served quality food and greeted with dignity, as neighbors and friends. The pantry is an opportunity “to break down barriers between people.”
What Would Jesus Do?
A Place to Belong, Memphis
Can a public space ever feel like home? For the unhoused in downtown Memphis, the answer may be yes. What began as a coffee spot on an old parking lot has grown into 30,000 square feet of green space with wheelchair-friendly walkways, flower gardens, sacred statuary, one apiary, two beehives and more than a dozen raised vegetable beds.
It's a place where anyone can belong.
“This is a ministry of presence, an extension of hospitality,” said Kelley Henderson, executive director of Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (CCWTN).
Like many service innovations, it came out of COVID-19, when meeting outside became a matter of course. It started as a spot for coffee, a meal, a handwashing station and restrooms on a corner parking lot. At first, 40 people came; today, between 200 and 250 visit daily. The goal was to create a café feel for those who are typically excluded from café culture.
“We’re not welcome in a lot of spaces. We’re asked to leave,” Henderson was told by clients over biscuit sandwiches in the park’s corner café. The topic: What to do with the old CCWTN gymnasium. “We’d love to have a space where we can just be and belong.”
And thus was born the community park, now called A Place to Belong. It is both a safe space and an extended ministry of outreach services, a place where trust is built over coffee and conversations, where referrals for resources are made but are not the price of admission.
“Hospitality is given. It’s not a ticket for entry,” said Henderson, who noted that their model is leading to the desired outcomes: less litter, more volunteerism (to mulch, weed and harvest), easy engagement (and free vegetables) for seniors living nearby and a growing reputation that this is a place to go for resources, for safety, for community. And yes, really good coffee. More than 300 cups of it every morning.
“We read stories of Christ breaking bread and having conversations with folks on the road,” said Henderson. “I think if Jesus were walking around today, he would have a cup of coffee with one of our guests.”
What Does Home Taste Like?
Common Earth Gardens, Louisville
“Working with refugees, homesickness is a huge issue,” said Jane Evans. “Growing the foods that remind them of home, that taste like home, that they can share with their children, that they couldn’t afford or wouldn’t be available at the local store – it’s a way to pass down respect for their culture.”
As program director for Common Earth Gardens, a project of Catholic Charities of Louisville, Inc., Evans works with refugees from Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, among other places. Whether growing bitter melon, water spinach and African eggplant or crops more typical of Kentucky, such as tomatoes, onions, greens or corn, they’re farming a plot of earth they can call their own.
“It’s not just having your corn, it’s getting out there,” she said, acknowledging how important it is for refugees to honor where they came from and what they hold dear while cultivating new lives where they are. “It’s an identity, it’s a life. A way for people to literally feel rooted in their new homeland.”
Common Earth currently boasts 450 gardeners working six community garden sites around Louisville; plots average 900 square feet and are leased annually for $20 to $25. A three-year incubator farm program begun in 2017 supports farmers with educational opportunities and technical support while they farm one-tenth of an acre plots for which they pay about $200. The goal is to help them launch independent businesses after graduation.
Amir Hussein grew up in a refugee farming family from Somalia. He came to Louisville at the age of four with his family; Catholic Charities helped them get their first piece of land in 2007. Now 19 and studying mechanical engineering in college, he works for Catholic Charities as the farmers’ market coordinator, helping growers improve their marketing, going over sales records with them or fixing a broken tent, depending on the day.
While many of the other refugee kids he grew up with in the garden have moved on to other things, Hussein enjoys keeping his hand in, so to speak.
“I hope to continue in farming. It’s something I hold dear,” he said. “It might slow down, but I don’t think it would ever completely phase out of my life.”
New Roots for Refugees, Northeast Kansas
“The goal is that families will buy their own land, or buy a house with land,” said Denise Ogilvie, chief mission officer for Catholic Charities Northeast Kansas. Their New Roots for Refugees program currently has 10 refugee families taking part in a four-year program that phases out support as participants become more independent. Since it began in 2015, 40 families have graduated and about 30 are still farming.
“For refugee families, the importance of being outside and in touch with nature and land is a huge benefit,” said Kristin Selby, noting that many of the roughly 325 refugees Catholic Charities resettles each year in the area work in auto parts or meat processing facilities when they first arrive.
Selby manages the New Roots program, which includes classes on filing taxes, keeping track of money, basic accounting, marketing and English. “They build a lot of connections through the program, building relationships with other refugee families,” she said.
Those relationships serve them well as they learn to navigate a culture that is significantly different from the one they left behind in Burma, Burundi or Congo. Families come to help each other out at farmers’ markets around the area and introduce new produce to each other, such as chin baung (also known as roselle or sour leaf) and squash blossoms. Program participants also sell boxes of vegetables through CSA subscriptions (community-supported agriculture) and wholesale to local restaurants.
Veronica Ma Ket came to Kansas from Burma as a 15-year-old girl. Her mother enrolled in the New Roots program and graduated three years ago; farming is her primary livelihood. Ma Ket now works for Catholic Charities as a sales specialist, coordinating the CSA program and wholesale clients, as well as providing some interpretation.
Now 26 and studying accounting, she’s been in her job for about a year. “We came here with the help of Catholic Charities,” Ma Ket said, “and this is how I want to serve the community that helped me and my community also.”
Putting Down Roots
Fresh International Gardens, Anchorage
In Anchorage, Alaska, community support and “incredible participants” are what make Fresh International Gardens (FIG) and Grow North Farm such a success, said Molly Cornish, senior director of community engagement at Catholic Social Services (CSS). FIG, founded in 2007, is part of the agency’s Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) program. Participants – who tend to be new arrivals to the U.S. – gain experience running a small business, work on their English-language skills, earn supplemental income and, not least, learn to grow vegetables in the unfamiliar climate of subarctic Alaska. RAIS, the only refugee resettlement program in the state, enrolled 502 new arrivals in FY22.
More than 80% of FIG’s participants are women, and the majority are from Afghanistan, with little farming experience.
Because FIG is intentionally family-friendly, children and seniors are welcome and encouraged to take part; it is not uncommon to see a woman working with a baby strapped to her back and kids playing in the garden. This provides mothers and older adults opportunities for both employment and connection, outlets they might otherwise lack in their new community.
Grow North Farm opened in 2019 to provide market and growing space to refugee agricultural entrepreneurs. Situated in the ethnically diverse Mountain View neighborhood on 28,000 square feet of land, Grow North is a hive of activity, with daily sales of fresh and pickled produce; “Hot Food Thursdays,” supported by a food truck; and sales of chive blossom vinegar, an assortment of spice blends, baked goods and a refugee cookbook. On-site sales provide refugee farmers a chance to handle U.S. currency and practice their language skills.
“FIG is the training ground, the first step, and Grow North is graduation,” joked Keenan Plate, refugee agricultural programs coordinator. About 25 to 30 people participate in the programs each year.
Additional sales of CSA boxes, employee holiday gift boxes for local corporations and popup meals add to the entrepreneurial mix – a recent Afghan popup dinner sold 250 tickets in less than 24 hours. The CSS food pantry buys vegetables from the farmers to distribute to clients through a program called Give Local, Grow Local, and familiar crops like dodo (what we call amaranth in the U.S.) are so popular with the farmers that there’s often not much of it left to sell to customers at market time.
“It’s an important part of our program to provide culturally significant food to our clients,” said Plate. “It’s not just us growing and selling. It’s the farmers who are leading that exploration.”
For more information on the ways that Catholic Charities agencies are ensuring our neighbors and communities have access to healthy food, visit Catholic Charities USA’s Food & Nutrition page.
Julie Bourbon is senior writer at Catholic Charities USA.