Seed and Soul Society Co-Founder and President Heather Fagan plucked an heirloom tomato from a branch at the nonprofit's community garden on a weekday morning as other members of the nonprofit gave city officials a tour amongst neat rows of vegetables. Nearby, three women sat on folding chairs and painted a basket of produce.
Community gardens like Seed and Soul Society have become a common sight in Port Huron, helping to feed the city's low- and moderate-income community and providing opportunities for the community to come together over a shared purpose.
Seed and Soul Society, Grace Episcopal Church, Polly's Place and Blue Water Recovery Outreach Center all have started community gardens within the city in the past two years.
There are also community gardens by the St. Clair County District Court and another named Helping Hands Community Garden.
St. Paul's Lutheran Church has hosted a community garden on their property for the past 14 years.
Community gardens provide fresh food for area residents amid rising food costs
Most community gardens provide food for their surrounding neighborhood, which can help ease the burden of rising food costs for local families.
"Food is a basic human right," Fagan said. "Whether you're a parent that's on your way home because you just got done working a double shift and you need to get home and this is an easy way to stop and grab something. Or, if you're just someone who's down on your luck and you need to just put something in your fridge. You shouldn't be denied access to that."
Seed and Soul Society provides food to the neighborhood mostly by placing produce at its outdoor pantry at the corner of North Boulevard and Military Street. Fagan said on most days food that is harvested in the morning is gone by the end of the day.
Tyler Moldovan, Seed and Soul Society co-founder and vice president, estimated the garden had produced more than 3,000 pounds of food in 2022. Julian Ruck, owner and founder of Polly's Place, estimated his garden will produce about 2,500 pounds of food .
Jeanette Ettin, the Good News Garden coordinator at Grace Episcopal Church, said their garden supplied four families and 10 seniors with weekly donations of fresh produce this year, as well extra donations to neighbors.
Don Strauss, garden coordinator for St. Paul Lutheran Church, said their garden has produced about 10,000 pounds of food this year for Mid-City Nutrition.
Alice Rieves, the soup kitchen's executive director, said they have also received donations from Seed and Soul Society, the St. Clair County District Court community garden, Polly's Place and donations from private gardens. While St. Paul's makes up the lion's share of donations of fresh produce, every donation helps, she said.
"We're able to save a lot of money, but we're able to provide healthier, tasty, nutritious meals with these by being able to serve a fresh vegetable as opposed to a canned vegetable," Rieves said.
Ruck also pointed to Polly's Place, located at 1423 Lapeer Ave. in the Harrison Pointe neighborhood, as a way to alleviate poverty in an area of the city that experiences the most crime and contains many low- to mid-income families.
"We're doing something different. We have an established community ( . . . )," Ruck said. "I think we can do a lot of good for this neighborhood."
Gardens also place for community, sense of healing
Urban gardens also provide a sense of community, garden leaders said.
Fagan and Ettin said their gardens provide volunteer opportunities and a public space for people to enjoy. More than 100 volunteers gathered at the church property at Sixth and Union in April to build the raised garden beds.
“It’s a community thing," Ettin said. "People are really excited about it."
Several urban garden leaders said they work with each other to start their gardens or swap tips and advice.
Blue Water Recovery and Outreach Center Executive Director Pat Patterson said their garden is mostly a space for those in recovery to participate in a constructive activity. Surrounding neighbors often stop by to pick vegetables straight from the vine.
"People in recovery can use it as therapy," Patterson said.
Community gardens can also be a place for education. Fagan said in the future, they plan to teach workshops on how to grow your own food so local families can be self-sustaining. They also plan to put in signs with information about each plant as a form of passive education.
Seed and Soul Society also runs a Facebook page at Seed and Soul Society Affiliates that posts gardening and food preservation tips, community events and acts as a forums for gardeners to swap questions and advice.
Community gardens and government oversight
Port Huron City Manager James Freed is supportive of community gardens as a way to enhance the city's neighborhoods. These gardens usually require little government oversight, especially gardens that are on private property, he said.
"The reason why these gardens are so successful is because government doesn't run them. It doesn't lead them. These are community-oriented. They're organic. They come from the neighborhoods," Freed said. "We're very supportive of community gardens all throughout the city. When you have a low- to moderate-income community, the idea of food access is critical, especially now with inflation."
While the city is supportive of community gardens, there is tension between Ruck and some city officials. Ruck claims that he has been harassed by blight issues and other obstructions, such as not being able to gather wood chips for the garden from the city's public access point.
He said there has also been a breakdown in communication between himself and certain city officials.
"We have been deliberately maligned by certain people within the city. ( . . . ) Every once in a while we'll come up on somebody and the city governance who just doesn't like us," Ruck said. "And they'll do everything they can to stop it."
Ruck purchased the property for the community garden for $6,000 under the name First Church of Music, LLC, in February 2021, according to property records. Since then, records show a blight violation in September 2021 for a large amount of open storage of miscellaneous items, such as carboard boxes and buckets. Records show the violation was dismissed following a hearing in which the defendant agreed to correct the violation.
The property also received a zoning violation in January for the building of an accessory structure without a primary residence. The violation administrative hearing officer dismissed the violation in a show cause hearing in May.
Freed declined to speak on Polly's Place or his relationship with Ruck, other than to say the city has never given his property adverse actions beyond the violations.
How are community gardens funded?
Fagan said the nonprofit she leads, which gained 501c3 status in September 2021, in the past has been primarily funded by the founding members. The nonprofit also recently received a $22,500 grant from Lush Cosmetics, which will be used for educational classes and to build a wheelchair-accessible path through the garden, Fagan said.
Ruck said Polly's Place is funded through his personal money and donations, which come from all over the country through solicitations from his personal Facebook page.
The Good News Garden was funded through a $20,000 grant from the church's diocese of Eastern Michigan, Ettin has said. As a part of the effort to feed the area's hungry population, the church has also set up food truck distributions, which she said distributed about 85,000 pounds of food in its first year.
Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: Urban gardens cropping up in Port Huron provide free food, community