Michigan church tends a garden to feed the hungry

An Episcopal church harvested more than 1,700 pounds of vegetables for a local food bank to give to the community's hungry.

By , Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell)/AP

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    Joannée DeBruhl, left, and the Rev. Deon Johnson of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brighton hold just a portion of the daily pick from the church's community garden in Brighton, Mich.
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The summer harvest brought in by St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Brighton went well beyond picking cucumbers from the vine. What started as an idea for a small garden in front of the church turned into an incredibly successful organic garden.

In one summer, the church garden, which sits on a 25-acre plot at the Emerich Retreat Center in Hamburg Township, harvested 1,700 pounds of produce for Gleaners Community Food Bank.

"One of the goals of the (Episcopal) Diocese of Michigan is to eradicate hunger and promote healthy eating," says the Rev. Deon Johnson of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. "Literally, I said, 'I want a small garden to start,' " he joked.

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What was supposed to be a small garden is having a major impact on the community.

More than 70 volunteers helped plant and pick produce at the farm. Businesses, local residents, and parishioners donated more than $5,000 to get the garden growing.

None were more helpful than head volunteer gardener Joannee DeBruhl, who spearheaded the project and often spent entire days picking produce.

"She has executed a huge project this summer," says Michelle Ounanian, Livingston County Gleaners programs coordinator. "We're excited that someone was happy to start a brand-new garden with Gleaners in mind."

The garden had more than 20 types of vegetables in many varieties — everything from acorn squash to zucchini.

"People are being exposed to new vegetables that they may not have had the opportunity to buy," Ms. Ounanian says. "They're growing some real weird stuff."

Among them: chocolate bell peppers, yellow sweet tomatoes, and eggplant.

"I'm excited people are going home and trying something new and different," Ounanian says. "We are coupling the availability of the produce with recipes, and people have been taking both."

Plans for expansion, selling produce at the Brighton Farmers' Market, and hiring a full-time staff are in the works for the farm. DeBruhl and Johnson even joked about bringing in some chickens, goats, and even sheep.

"We are always going to give a large portion to Gleaners," DeBruhl says. "But we want it to be sustainable and provide employment. There's room for a huge expansion if we can make it work."

DeBruhl knows exactly how to make it work.

She recently applied to the Michigan State University Organic Farming Exchange, a nine-month training and certification program, to help her learn more about farm management and organic farming techniques.

Before this summer, DeBruhl had never grown anything bigger than a small backyard garden. Organic farming was an afterthought. But after being laid off recently, it may have become a blessing in disguise.

"This has been the most fulfilling summer of my life," DeBruhl says. "I now know what I want to do when I grow up."

As for the church, its motto — "joyfully growing, giving, and serving" — couldn't be any more fitting.

Says the Rev. Johnson: "You never know what you can do with a dream."

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