Sara Stewart feeds and unites a community

Sara Stewart’s journey with Unity Gardens is well-known, but it deserves repeating.

In 2008, she was a public health nurse and educator when she noticed a common theme among the patients she met.  In most cases, the chronic issues they faced – obesity and diabetes, among them – could be traced to poor nutrition.

Dig a little deeper, and the second root cause was poverty. Because of their economic circumstances, her patients had to eat what bargains they could find at the neighborhood convenience stores – maybe a corn dog, Cheetos, and a Big Gulp.

The bigger grocery chains had shuttered their stores in South Bend’s most downtrodden sectors. The folks with the fewest transportation options and the greatest need were living in what we now call food deserts – with no place to find fresh food. 

People need to eat, and they need to eat better.

Sara found an empty lot near a homeless shelter south of downtown South Bend. Her first plantings during that spring of 1988 were quick-growing salad vegetables – lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, and kale. She dug the dirt and brought in water, one bucket at a time.

She told the neighbors the food in the garden was theirs to pick as they chose. When it was time for the next planting, she added tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and zucchini.

Friends and neighbors noticed what she was doing, and they joined her crusade. Dozens of Unity Gardens sprang up elsewhere in South Bend. Eventually, she and her partner, Mitch Yaciw, took over seven acres on the west side, near Prast Boulevard and Ardmore Trail. 

That main garden now has greenhouses, powered by solar panels, and they are nearing completion of a large all-purpose building, where they will teach nutrition and gardening classes.

On any given day, in good weather and bad, people arrive at the various gardens on foot, on bicycles and in cars to pick whatever is ready. It’s all free. You don’t have to join a group, buy a membership, or pull a weed. If your family’s hungry, the gardens are here for you.

They are there for well-fed people like me as well.

I met Sara about seven years ago at a fundraiser for a different local charity. As best I could tell, we were just two strangers making small talk when I was telling her about various places I volunteered. I needed to make a real difference, and I casually mentioned my Mondays were a day off.

People who know Sara can guess what happened next. She sketched out what she was doing with Unity Gardens and mentioned several ways in which volunteers could help. Four days later, I met her again, at her temporary office on South Chapin Street, and I started assembling and painting bee boxes. We were going to start bee swarms so we could harvest honey.

My volunteer days at the main garden now are Tuesdays. I have witnessed the amazing growth there, from a few plots of peppers and potatoes to what amounts to a small truck farm. 

The little bits of work I do – usually three hours a week – are dwarfed by dozens of school and community groups that take on large projects, such as planting a fruit forest within easy walking distance of the Beacon Heights apartments or turning vacant ground into an accessible garden for folks with mobility issues.

Mainly, I dig dirt and push wheelbarrows. More importantly, I attach myself to a cause that is much greater than myself. I listen to people’s stories and digest their ideas. We share experiences. I can rejoice when the fruit and vegetables ripen, but I also can witness a change in people’s viewpoints.

I often hear acquaintances bash South Bend as a place where nothing good happens. It’s a chance for me to talk about people and places that are making positive steps small and large. At the top of my list are Sara and her Unity Gardens.

Sara’s work is getting some nationwide attention. She recently was named a finalist for USA Today’s EarthKind Award. The winner will be selected by votes cast during the month of October. I intend to cast a vote for her every day this month.  This is where you can go to vote: