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    Much more than vegetables take root at GrowMemphis

    Johnathan Devin - The Commercial Appeal -

    When Christopher Peterson broke ground on his first garden, vegetables were only one of many things he hoped to grow.

    Now, as executive director of an organization that is responsible for the creation of more than 30 community gardens, much more is taking root.

    "The most important thing to me is that (community gardens) connect so many social issues — problems of environmental sustainability, human health and hunger," said Peterson, 25, who began heading up GrowMemphis in January.

    "For me, it's a way I can work on a lot of issues at once."

    GrowMemphis began in 2007 as a program of the nonprofit Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to help communities find resources, funding and volunteers to raise a community garden. GrowMemphis doesn't actually do the daily hands-on work of maintaining gardens (though Peterson said they often get their hands dirty), but rather helps churches, schools and neighbors lay the groundwork for creating a garden.

    That can mean helping to find and secure a vacant lot, writing grants for startup funding, and training groups to work with volunteers.

    "We're working toward capacity building," Peterson said. "The goal is to have truly community-led projects."

    Peterson and two friends, Kenny Latta and Dylan Perry, started a community garden on the campus of Christian Brothers University while they were undergrads studying religion and philosophy.

    Peterson later went on to get a master's degree in human values and contemporary global ethics at King's College in London, doing most of his research on food systems and environmental ethics.

    In January, about the time that Peterson began working at GrowMemphis, the program took on a life of its own, expanding so rapidly that it was stealing the focus of the Peace and Justice Center. The decision was made for GrowMemphis to transition into its own 501(c)3 nonprofit.

    "And so the first task is really ongoing, to transform a program into a standalone organization," Peterson said. "A lot of the challenges early on are the things you don't think about. You have to find your own donors and events. The other task was that we'd grown from three gardens to 30 in just a few years."

    And the demand continues to rise. Since community gardens are highly visible, GrowMemphis hasn't had to advertise its services. The group receives from 12 to 20 well-written, worthy applications each year, but can accept only two or three.

    St. Augustine Catholic Church developed one of the early GrowMemphis gardens.

    "Our priest at that time was interested in having a garden developed with the idea of bringing the church and the community together," said Pat Lacey, who has been heading up volunteer gardeners since 2008.

    The St. Augustine Parkway Community Garden is now across the street from the church on Kerr Avenue.

    In August, GrowMemphis helped the church replace the rotting wood of several raised beds with cinder blocks.

    In Binghamton, Jacqueline Shotwell, organizer of The Street Farm, found gardening to be a source of personal strength and a testament to her faith as she battled cancer.

    "I started this garden to try and get my community involved with healthy eating," Shotwell said.

    In 2011, GrowMemphis helped Shotwell gain access to three adjacent vacant lots. She then organized groups of children and teenagers to work the garden through the summer.

    "They'd meet me at my house at 6 o'clock in morning," Shotwell said. "They would bring their own lunches, and I'd challenge them to trade fruits and vegetables for chips.

    "Eventually by the end of the summer, they were bringing a nourishing meal," she said. "Some of them had never touched broccoli or eggplant or parsley or knew that these things came from out of the ground. That touched my heart."

    Finding a water source was a problem. For most of the summer, Shotwell lugged buckets of water from her house every day, even as she underwent chemotherapy. Since then, she has made arrangements to use water from nearby houses.

    This year Shotwell delivered 154 plants to 36 households in Binghamton so they could start their own home gardens.

    This year, GrowMemphis assisted Peabody Elementary School in the Cooper-Young community and St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral on Poplar Avenue in Downtown in starting their community gardens.

    There's more work to be done, even as the growing season of 2012 ends. In July, GrowMemphis received a grant of about $12,000 from the Canale Foundation to build its own greenhouse. The group has been using a city-owned greenhouse in Overton Park.

    Also, GrowMemphis has been working with the newly formed Food Advisory Council, which with the help of Harvard University has been working to implement revised Shelby County Health Department codes for the growing and sale of foods.

    "Memphis gets a bad rap for a lot of things — our blight, our hunger issues, our obesity issues," Peterson said. "It's important for me to not be a part of that group of young people who abandons the city to go on to other things. It's important for me to do this work here."