Church Grows Plans to Feed Hungry

NorthPark Presbyterian has a hefty goal for next year. Run by volunteers, the church will produce 30-40,000 pounds of tomatoes a year starting January 2017 in their new hydroponic SoulFood Greenhouse to help feed the hungry.

On March 3, the Dallas City Plan Commission approved a minor amendment to Planned Development No. 260, which will clear the way for the 4,100-square-foot facility.

“It will be maybe another two, three months, something like that, before we’re really, I think, digging in the dirt. But this was a big hurdle to get over,” said Keri McCall, the project coordinator and greenhouse founder.

The church reached the end of the building permit process last fall when they learned they needed to apply for the change to the PD.
“We feel like we’ve answered the questions the city had already, so we’re hoping that goes a little smoother,” McCall said.

In 2011, McCall went to the Vickery Meadow Alliance Food Pantry and Clothes Closet and asked if they needed fresh produce. She had just finished reading Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistable Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical in a Sunday School class, and the longtime gardener was feeling inspired and called to put her faith into action, she said.

Her idea — to start a garden at NorthPark to help feed their neighbors across Central Expressway. At the time, there were no community gardens making donations to the pantry, which gets mostly nonpersihables from the North Texas Food Bank and other donors. Over the next four years, the McCall and a host of volunteers grew tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, and in the winter, spinach, lettuces, carrots, and garlic.

In 2014, the idea for creating a greenhouse sprouted out of a conversation McCall and her husband had with a man who built hydroponic greenhouses. He explained how much more food they could produce in a controlled environment, she said. McCall was hooked.

“And so the congregation approved it and we’ve done some fundraising and at this point it’s fully funded,” McCall said. “We’re just ready to go; just waiting on the city.”

The church’s garden has since been cleared to make way for the coming greenhouse. Running the greenhouse will be McCall’s full time job. She said they’re looking to have about 700 tomato plants. In preparation, the mom of three has taken an intensive course in controlled agriculture at the Unviersity of Arizona and attended workshops across the country.

“I grew up hating helping my dad in the garden, but it’s paid off I guess,” she said with a laugh. “We’re going to get tomatoes down, and get really good at it, and then possibly add some peppers or cucumbers or something like that. But the idea was to be able to consistently provide tomatoes year-round to the food pantries, just like they can always get peanut butter.”

Food and security issues have really become important to the church in the past couple of years, said Ellen Mata, NorthPark’s director of mission. In September 2014, NorthPark’s Reverse Food Truck hit the road to distribute produce to the Vickery Meadow food pantry collected from the church’s garden and other community partners such as Kroger. The truck will be responsible for distributing the bulk of the tomatoes.

McCall said the church had no plans to have another “regular” garden, as other groups have grown up to fill some of the need. The pantry now receives weekly donations from Temple Emanu-El’s garden and the Gardeners in Community Development group, said pantry volunteer coordinator Marguerite Marz. NorthPark’s food truck is still making stops at least twice a month. “It’s one of the best collaborations,” Marz said. “It’s just amazing how the food comes in.”

City Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates said she’s supports NorthPark’s greenhouse plans. Besides representing much of Preston Hollow, she also represents the ethnically and economically diverse Vickery Meadow neighborhood. “You can’t look to us as the government to meet all the needs. So when I can help a church or nonprofit be able to meet the needs of the people I serve politically, I’m very supportive and excited,” Gates said. “The need is great. I don’t question that.”

About 97.7 percent of Dallas ISD students living in Vickery Meadow qualify for free lunches, according to Gates.The pantry served 1,603 families 307,882 pounds of food in 2015, Marz said. “Most of our clients, if they’re coming to us, they just need the food,” Marz said. “They’re people just trying to make ends meet.”

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