116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
St. Andrew Lutheran Church took the challenge to “grow not mow” and has turned its lawn into an urban farm that grows amaranth and tomatoes for immigrants and others in need.
So far this year, the congregation has harvested more than 5,000 pounds of tomatoes.
“Tomato fatigue is setting in,” Craig Nilsen, 60, of Robins, joked during a recent interview. “We found soil that hadn’t been disturbed for 30 years is incredibly fertile.”
The church, at 4420 Center Point Rd. NE, partners with Feed Iowa First, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that unites businesses, faith organizations, schools, farmers and volunteers to grow produce for 19 food distribution sites around Cedar Rapids.
Feed Iowa First starts 50,000 plants over the winter and spring that are planted outdoors in 22 fields like the one at St. Andrew’s.
The nonprofit selects produce for each field, rotating crops to maintain soil health and choosing deer-resistant crops in areas more prone to munching mammals. They also choose crops based on the needs and desires of the communities they serve, Feed Iowa First Executive Director Emmaly Renshaw said.
“Across all African communities, amaranth is a staple dietary vegetable,” she said.
The leafy vegetable rich in iron and beta-carotene is eaten like spinach, usually steamed or fried on its own or in other dishes. Although amaranth greens are prized by people from Africa, East Asia or other parts of the world, the produce can’t be found in most Iowa grocery stores.
“Amaranth is one of those things missing in our community,” Renshaw said.
Amaranth, also called pigweed, is considered invasive in Iowa because its seeds can spread easily. St. Andrew volunteers harvest the greens once a week with hand shears, removing seed pods when they appear, Nilsen said.
Feed Iowa First washes the greens and takes them to distribution sites, including food pantries, health clinics and three community refrigerators around Cedar Rapids. Regular produce distribution will continue until first frost, likely late October or early November.
St. Andrew’s members show up at least two days a week during the summer to weed, water and harvest. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the urban farm was one place the congregation still could meet up and maintain social distancing.
“That was huge,” Nilsen said. Members not into farming or who can’t physically do the work are welcome to bring a lawn chair and socialize, he said.
Working to grow produce to feed the needy fits squarely within St. Andrew’s mission, he said.
“The church has fundamentally two different pieces,” he said. “There’s the inward piece, taking care of the flock. Everything you do surrounding the congregation. That’s done so those people can go out into the world and share the good news.”
Volunteers like Nilsen allow Feed Iowa First staff to spend their time on more specialized tasks, such as controlling pests, repairing irrigation lines or providing farm education, Renshaw said. They visit each farm weekly.
Grow Don’t Mow farms likely will produce up to 28,000 pounds of produce this year, she said.
Feed Iowa First has other programs that seek to expand access to fresh, healthy foods.
Don’t Waste Donate allows any local grower to give surplus crops to Feed Iowa First distribution site. The program tries to get produce to consumers within 24 to 72 hours, Renshaw said.
“Five to 7 percent of families don’t have a full-size refrigerator,” she said. “Our goal is as soon as those donations come in, they are out for distribution.”
The organization has a produce drop-off shed at 1506 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids.
Through Equitable Land Access, Feed Iowa First helps beginning farmers from other countries connect with land where they can grow culturally-relevant produce they can sell for a profit. Through this program, St. Andrew’s dedicates part of the church farm to a Honduran family, Nilsen said.
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