GARDEN SPOTLIGHT - Circle of Concern



Circle of Concern (COC) is a food pantry that helps feed those in need and provides assistance to low-income families residing in the St. Louis community. Established in 1967, COC now serves approximately 2,000 individuals monthly and more than 1,200 households annually, supporting people in need with food, funds, support, and encouragement.


A NEW OPPORTUNITY


COC was first presented with the idea of establishing a garden after becoming aware that a vacant lot next to the building’s headquarters in Valley Park had become available in early 2021. With no previous onsite gardening experience, the question became, how will the non-profit be able to create and sustain a garden and fulfill its existing responsibilities serving its mission? It didn’t take long for volunteers and local businesses from the St. Louis area to help answer the call. After careful consideration and strategic planning, Circle of Concern’s team decided to pursue making the garden a reality, and “Garden Greens” broke ground.


A GARDEN IS BORN

One specific challenge the Garden Greens team had to overcome initially was managing the nutritionally deprived soil left behind in the lot. Healthy soil is critical to having a successful garden. This is when Larry Quick, a longtime COC volunteer and master gardener, recommended executive director Cyndi Miller contact St. Louis Composting. St. Louis Composting has enjoyed years of supporting the organization with holiday fund drives, so it was an easy decision to support their garden initiative with soils and compost!


After reviewing the space and calculating the amount of compost that would be needed to amend the soil, STLC delivered compost to their friends down the street and they proceeded to prepare the garden for planting. Finally, after a huge effort on the part of garden volunteers across the area, the plot was ready to become a garden.

Integrated with its already long-established mission to distribute food to those in need, the garden was able to supplement what COC provided to its clients in the first year. Each week on Wednesdays & Fridays, a handful of volunteers picked, washed, cleaned, and packaged the fresh garden produce from the garden to distribute to patrons the same day. These volunteers varied in experience, from master gardeners to gardeners with little to no experience. In its first year of operation alone, Garden Greens provided over 960 pounds of fresh vegetables.

Garden Greens is approximately a 30 x 36-foot perimeter open garden. A variety of crops are featured, such as melon, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, cantaloupe, lettuce, squash, turnips, and carrots. In addition, a wide variety of seasonal vegetables are planted in rotation. Soil health is maintained by the addition of compost in the Spring and Fall.


THE POWER OF COMMUNITY

While Garden Greens has added to what COC has to offer to its clients, fresh, healthy vegetables have always been a staple in what COC has provided its clients. Thanks to the generosity of area community gardens, churches, schools, and individuals in sharing their summer produce, COC has enjoyed the kindness of area gardeners for years. Their contributions and support have been a vital part in helping COC fulfill its mission to feed those in need.


Garden Greens is an extension of this community kindness. Larry Quick, COC’s Garden Greens manager, noted that the garden received two essential forms of support, financial and communal. The generous donation of funds, tools, and supplies from volunteers, the COC board, and local businesses helped make Garden Greens a reality. The communal support from all involved has paved the way for long-lasting relationships and continued future success of COC's mission.


People love to help and be a part of something, and gardening addresses all of these needs, which is why gardens offer more than just fresh produce; they bring us all together!


MOVING FORWARD


Circle of Concern has provided unprecedented support to patrons and families suffering from food insecurity. Understanding the mental & psychological effects of food insecurities are as significant as tackling the physical ones. In a moving testament, Miller describes one interaction with a client where receiving fresh apples and oranges made the client's family feel loved and cared for. This gave the client the confidence to realize that they could overcome current challenges and shift their lives in a new direction. This is an excellent example of how community support provides more than the physical aspects of each program, but also provides love and hope to the people they seek to help.


KEYS TO SUCCESS

COC aims to continue to make its garden and resources accessible and available to the community. Miller and Quick both hope that individuals and organizations alike construct more gardens. "To establish a garden, there must be a tangible need”, said Quick. This tangible need provides all the incentive to carry a garden through inevitable challenges to be a success. “Managing expectations is how you learn to deal with adversity, remain optimistic, and hope that your garden will be even better next year.” For organizations intrigued with the notion of creating a large garden onsite, Miller advises several lessons and recommendations:

  1. Have an experienced gardener lead and take charge

  2. Establish and document a standard of best practices

  3. Establish a level of diplomacy with the community and volunteers

  4. Establish a basis of clear-cut, accessible communication to all parties

  5. Maximize efficiency with the time and resources available

  6. Engage the community with positive volunteers

With all of these suggestions and a lot of hard work on the part of volunteers, gardens provide everything we need as a community to not just get through challenges, but to thrive and elevate our experience as people. These benefits extend to those that create and maintain these gardens and to those who enjoy the fruits of these labors of love!