- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - The pastor puts on a pair of brown leather work boots and goes out to the garden. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the perennial onions are in bloom. The bulbous purple flowers are easy to pick out among the barren, raised garden beds that’ll be tilled and ready for planting soon.

For the second year, CrossPointe Church is offering 20 free plots, each measuring 4 by 8 feet, the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/22nZwCG ) reported. Last week, there were four left.

The modern community garden movement has been slowly growing in Siouxland with churches and organizations investing in local food systems, encouraging people to get active and cultivating healthier eating habits.

Dan Bittinger, the boot-wearing pastor who doubles as the maintenance man in the community garden, already has his sights set on expanding during the next growing season.

“We can do this. We have 13 acres of land here at church. It’s wide open,” he said. “We can provide an option for people on the west side who can’t garden or don’t know how to garden to come and do this.”

Since the 1890s, Americans have turned to the soil to confront social problems such as economic recession, war, urban decline and environmental injustice, according to Smithsonian Gardens research.

During World War I, gardening became a patriotic act. Responding to a food shortage in Europe, the National War Garden Commission encouraged citizens to “sow the seeds of victory” and raise their own vegetables.

The campaign returned during World War II, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden at the White House. An estimated 20 million families followed suit, reportedly providing over 40 percent of the country’s fresh vegetables.

Once government funding dried up and the war ended, many community gardens were abandoned. Hobby gardening thrived in the 1950s and “guerilla gardening” took root in the 1970s when activists seed bombed blighted areas in New York City.

Gardening is in vogue again and being backed by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program and the People’s Garden Initiative, started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009.

Both promote growing more community gardens to increase access to fresh, local food while combating obesity and malnutrition.

CrossPointe Church, 2300 W 19th St., started its community garden to address the neighborhood’s food insecurity, which was brought to light through interactions with students at Loess Hills Elementary and residents of the income-based apartments across the street.

“A lot of people that we met didn’t have fresh produce,” Bittinger said. “And they didn’t have the space to garden.”

To help them get started, the church supplies seeds, tools, trellises, fertilizer and water. Gardeners are responsible for maintaining and weeding their own plots, which are nestled between the parking lot and a grove of trees. A tall fence protects the produce from wandering deer and wild turkeys.

Bittinger and his family have personally enjoyed the bounty of having a community garden.

They live in a house on a hill, where there’s no room to plant vegetables. So, last year, his family of five tended to two of the garden beds by the church. The kids loved growing - but mostly eating - fresh watermelon all summer long and his wife, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, got a taste of home by having fresh fried okra, squash and tomatoes.

While he rates his gardening experience as 4 out of 10, Bittinger assured there are other members of the congregation who are willing and able to educate black thumb beginners on urban agriculture.

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com


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