Saintly garden

New community plot takes root and aids the needy

Jason Winton and Stephanie Elliott are two of the pioneers of the community garden that provides fresh produce for the Jesus Center.

Jason Winton and Stephanie Elliott are two of the pioneers of the community garden that provides fresh produce for the Jesus Center.

Photo By Sena Christian

Gardening for good:
For information on volunteering, contact Jason Winton at 592-6589 or Stephanie Elliott at 354-1646.

When Jason Winton’s wife, Julissa, returned to her homeland of Peru for a year during their engagement, the couple’s relationship was confined to long-distance phone calls. During this time, they talked all about the meaning of family, spirituality and community.

Winton was reading Wendell Berry, an author he credits with greatly influencing his thinking about sustainable agriculture, the threat of industrial farming and the social value of what we eat. He came to a realization: “It’s insane not to grow your own food or have a connection to the local food economy,” he said.

So he decided to start volunteering at local garden plots, and Julissa joined him in doing so when she returned to Chico. Winton recalled one day when the couple trudged through the muddy soil at a farm, joined by other volunteers, folks they had never met. Suddenly, the clouds started spewing rain.

“It was this gorgeous experience,” Winton said. “Five minutes ago, we didn’t know each other. It was so visceral: the food, the earth and each other. It left an impact.”

Winton decided he wanted to get his hands even dirtier. Now, the fruits of his labor and those of several other volunteers, have created the newly planted Jesus Center Community Garden, located on a previously unused lot at 14th and Mulberry streets. The fruits and vegetables grown there will supply the Jesus Center’s food pantry. The garden also will give neighbors a chance to watch things grow, eat right off the vine and develop a more-local food system.

The garden is a collaborative effort among Winton, Growing Resources Uniting Bellies (GRUB) and a handful of volunteers. Two years ago, Winton attempted to help start a garden through his church, but the effort fell through when the water company that owned the land the group hoped to lease decided it needed the property. The group lost momentum and disbanded.

Meanwhile, Winton began renting a renovated 100-year-old house owned by local architect David Kim. The two men discussed the idea of starting a garden in the yard. Kim contacted Stephanie Elliott from GRUB and the group began planning for a community garden. At the end of September, they held their first workday.

“We ended up with a great response from the community,” Elliott said. “We had so many hands, we didn’t have enough activities.”

Three workdays later—with 20 to 30 volunteers at each one—and seven garden beds have been planted with lettuce, sage, thyme, spicy greens, asparagus, spinach, artichokes, parsley and chard. All the materials for the garden boxes were reused, left over from construction on the house. Most of the compost was donated and GRUB supplied the plants. The whole garden cost about $100.

“If planted well, it will produce more food than the food pantry can handle,” Elliott said.

Three blocks away, the Jesus Center serves Chico’s homeless population by providing meals six days a week, showers, shelter for women and children, and a food pantry. The center gives out about 50 packages of food weekly. “The food comes in on an ad-hoc basis,” said Executive Director Bill Such. These packages contain donated food stored in the warehouse—soup, rice, beans, soft drinks—and the center buys meat, eggs and milk.

The pantry gives away food only once a week, but eventually Such wants to have enough supplies to do so on a daily basis, if needed.

“The thought of acquiring fresh produce is very appealing, especially considering that much of the food we receive is canned,” he said.

The Jesus Center Community Garden sits on about a quarter acre of land, and there is still plenty of room for expansion. Next spring, the garden will further take shape as volunteers plant a greater diversity of crops and produce even more fruits and vegetables for the food pantry.

“We’re here doing something pretty cool,” Winton said.

Elliott believes Chico has the potential to do even more urban farming. She runs GRUB’s education program and helps preschools and Boys and Girls Clubs start gardens.

“It’s my passion,” she said. “When someone calls up and says, ‘I want a garden,’ I have a hard time saying no.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, Chico residents pushed for the establishment of community gardens, Elliott said. But then the movement died out. Advocates think some of the vacant lots owned by the city of Chico should be turned over to community gardeners. Or the city should convert some park space into gardens. When it comes to starting a garden, access to land is the toughest issue to resolve.

Elliott noted that Chico has an awesome growing season, which can facilitate both a commitment to local food and a sustained contribution to the food pantry. People can grow nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables here.

“The diversity of available crops to us is amazing,” Elliott said. “I believe there’s a commitment to local food now.”