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Dirt lovers fight hunger?

Scrape off your trowel. Community gardens and similar efforts may soften a food-price spike hurting the poor.

Another world food-price crisis threatens the most vulnerable. Churches are ready to help — but how?
What should generous Lutherans do? More of the same? Yes: Give food to food shelves and money to hunger-fighting groups. Maybe even provide a regular meal for all comers.
For food shelves, canned or boxed goods are welcome, but money goes further, says Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, director of Minnesota FoodShare, a Minneapolis nonprofit. Moreover, 100 percent of March and April donations to her group go to local food shelves.
Meanwhile, dirt lovers take note: Community gardens may be part of the solution. Are your gardening gloves ready?

‘Dangerous levels’

The World Bank reported in February that food prices have reached “dangerous levels,” up 29 percent from a year earlier.

Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer of Minnesota FoodShare; Photo provided by Minnesota FoodShare

It’s old news: Higher prices mean missed meals. “Food prices will rise for our neighbors here in the community,” says Nelson-Pallmeyer, “and most importantly for those people who can’t really afford food.”
What should we do? One parish taking a step beyond food shelves is Trinity Lutheran, an ELCA congregation in St. Peter. It welcomes 70 or more community members each Monday evening with a free meal.

Are your gardening gloves ready?

It began with the chruch’s youth group. Young members “can wrap their hands around” the hunger issue, says Erika Durheim, youth and family minister at Trinity Lutheran, where 300 worship weekly and membership is 1,700.

Pink backpack

A summer 2008 youth trip to homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Chicago led to the weekly supper in St. Peter. A defining moment for Reed Woyda, age 18, now a senior at St. Peter High School, was in the basement of a Chicago Baptist church, where a boy not quite as old as Woyda shoved bread into a pink backpack. “Someone my age,” says Woyda, “[was] struggling to pretty much survive.”
Trinity’s youth returned home wanting to serve their own community’s poor, calculating they needed $1,000 to start. They raised $5,000. Many guest diners now are single mothers with kids in tow. “Poverty looks different in southern Minnesota,” says Durheim, “but it’s still poverty.”
What’s the key to this kind of mission? “You need passionate people who want to see a change in the world,” Durheim says, “but you need to let people have a true experience until they know, until they see, the difference that they can make.”
Durheim has such people. Trinity sent more than 50 youth to a February conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter to help package bulk food provided by Feed My Starving Children, a Coon Rapids, Minnesota, nonprofit that operates internationally.
In less than three hours, they packaged enough to feed 25,000. It is vital, says Durheim, “to let kids know that they can change the world.”
Will such a mission grow a congregation? Not necessarily. Some Trinity diners now do worship at Trinity, and some volunteers have joined the congregation. However, while no worship is required to dine, local Muslim Somali families hesitate to enter a church, says Durkheim. So she’s considering a neutral site to make Muslims feel more welcome.
The Rev. Eva Jensen of Golden Valley loves the idea of sponsoring a regular community meal. Food shelves address immediate needs, Jensen says — but eating together goes a step beyond. Eating together means getting to know one another and perhaps learning more about the roots of poverty. “It’s building relationships,” she explains, “and has the potential for building solutions together.”

A carload of food is always welcome, according to Minnesota FoodShare’s Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, but a cash donation goes further for a local food bank.

Gardening together promises the same effect. Jensen, a onetime consultant with the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod on food issues, looks forward to tomatoes and basil from her own plot this summer — and is an ardent advocate for community gardens in which many work together.

Rocky soil?

Congregations active in community gardens draw on the skills of members who love getting into the soil — with the added incentive now of an urgent need for healthy, affordable food.
Jesus himself knew farming: Remember the parable of the sower? Rocky soil vs. good soil? He also knew that we will always have the poor with us.
In April, we remember the time when Jesus did some hard work of his own in a garden. We might do our own little bit as well.

For more information:
This Minneapolis nonprofit promotes community gardens.
This is the Web site for the weekly meal service of Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Peter.
Minnesota FoodShare, part of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, says all March and April donations go directly to Minnesota food shelves.
Feed My Starving Children, a Christian nonprofit based in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, sponsors events in which volunteers pack food for the hungry worldwide.

Fast facts:

* According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.7 percent of households were food insecure at least sometime during the year
* The southern region of the United States experiences the highest rate of hunger and poverty in the country
* Households with children under six years old are more likely to experience hunger
* While the number of households experiencing hunger decreased through the 1990s, it increased consistently throughout the first decade of the 21st century
* Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin are currently among the most food secure states in the nation

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