Unity Gardens: Connecting Michiana with Healthy Eating

By+Kathy Jonas

SOUTH BEND - It’s become almost a cultural cliché to advise people to follow their passion. It’s only when you meet Sara Stewart and Mitch Yaciw that you know exactly what that expression means.


These two are the faces behind the Unity Gardens movement that has taken off in South Bend.


“It’s an over-used expression, but Sara and Mitch are people people. And chicken people. And I think there’s a goat or two in there somewhere,” says Sue Lowe, a volunteer with Unity Gardens who recently taught a class on ornamental grasses at the annual Unity Gardens Summit.


At a tour of LaSalle Garden on Prast Boulevard on the city’s west side, Sarah and Mitch keep getting interrupted by their obvious delight in the little things most of us wouldn’t notice: the ladybugs on some catnip plants in the greenhouse, the nutrients in the donated bags of cocoa mulch, or a surprise flower that has sprouted up, bursting with a deep jewel-colored purple. 


Stewart, the founder and executive director, and Yaciw, gardens manager (primarily responsible for the flagship garden at LaSalle Square which he terms “his baby”), live and breathe what they’re doing. And you might say there are no better advocates for healthy eating. 


“Americans are about four generations removed from the farm,” Stewart says. “We are dangerously disconnected on how to grow food.”


They are working hard to change that. The number of unity gardens is up to 58; UG now owns the LaSalle property; the organization’s “Honey from the Hood” has won national honors, and they’re selling produce like arugula, kale, and spinach, grown in their greenhouse throughout the winter months at the South Bend Farmers Market. They have a part-time employee, Hannah Scafford, a Cornell University graduate, who specializes in food forests, permaculture and food security. 


Stewart spent 20 years as a healthcare advocate and nurse before she got a kind of “nagging idea” about people in South Bend being able to pick fruit and vegetables as they walked down the street. She tried the idea out on some of those most in need and was met with encouragement. 


“Nutrition is an empowering thing,” she says. “When you’re stuck in poverty, all you think about is the present. There’s no past or future. Abuse, addiction, the crisis of the moment prevents you from thinking back or ahead.”


Sara and Mitch’s Story

Born in Indianapolis, Stewart grew up in South Bend, attending Marshall Elementary School and Riley High School. She went to nursing school at DePauw University in Greencastle, worked in Indianapolis and ended up back in South Bend. Her gardening roots are as deep as you can get. Her great grandfather, Joseph Meyer, was known as the “Herb Doctor,” the herbalist who built and owned the Meyer Castle in the Dyer area and founded the Indiana Botanic Gardens in Hobart. 


“I spent my entire childhood in the garden,” she says. “Our family joke is that we don’t clean when someone comes over, we tend to our yard.” 


After nursing school, she said she “rode the health care tidal wave” that took place between 1986 and 2006. She discovered a love for teaching and decided to pursue a master’s degree in nursing, and eventually ended up in a community health position at Saint Mary’s College. She got her master’s from Bethel College in 2009. 


Yaciw also grew up in South Bend. His connection to the land also is strong. His grandfather started a truck patch farm after retiring from coal mining and sold vegetables from his stand in front of the small farm. 


Growing up, his family managed the Briteway Store and he worked in the garden shop learning the ins and outs of plants. He is a Purdue Master Gardener and is certified in permaculture. “I became involved in Unity Gardens in 2009 when Sara asked me to watch the gardens while she was out of town for two weeks. It has been a full-time passion ever since,” says Yaciw. 


Humble Beginnings

Stewart owned a plot of land on Franklin Street in the triangle area where many people walk. In 2008, she sent an email out to five or six friends about planting and tending a garden there with produce available to anyone who needed it. By the end of the year, that email list had grown to 1,200 people. 


While Unity Gardens started slowly, the idea was catching on. People started coming by the garden bringing mulch, bags for harvesting and newspapers. The South Bend Tribune wrote a front page story about the connection between what Unity Gardens was doing in terms of community health and obesity. 


In 2009, the city needed the lot on Franklin Street and helped them relocate to a 10-acre plot of land on the west side – now the central location called LaSalle Square. A 501 C (3) was formed and people began wanting to be a part of the project. 


A framework for the organization came into being and the number of gardens jumped from 12 to 34, and then to 50, and now to 58. 


“People became more passionate about the abundance of healthy food,” Stewart said. “Everyone is welcome from the homeless, our mayor, professors, day care centers and students.” She recalls many times when people got jobs just from making a connection there. 


“People started to get to know one another in a way that people just don’t today. Friends don’t even get together anymore. Kids don’t play outside,” she says. “But everyone looks the same in the garden. The story is universal. All can come and find value in what we’re doing.”


Ann Voll, who manages the St. Vincent de Paul Society Gardens on Crescent Street, says the immediate goal is to provide fresh vegetables for the food pantry. “We had a beautiful crop of potatoes last year and because they don’t spoil, they are perfect.” The garden serves as a classroom for a children’s summer program and its bounties are used in a healthy cooking class. 


Unity Gardens in 2015 – Landowners

After being in the LaSalle Square location for several years, Stewart says the board decided it was time to buy the property, which had been appraised at $97,000. The organization was “blown away” when South Bend City Councilman and Redevelopment Commission Vice President David Varner suggested that the city give it to Unity Gardens for $1. “I’m almost in tears I am so grateful to him,” Stewart says. 


Varner, who has been on the Redevelopment Commission for seven years, says he has seen similar arrangements in the past and didn’t understand why it wouldn’t work for Unity Gardens. “They’re a nice, local organization that appears to have done so much for our community. Everyone agreed.”


He mentioned the problem of “food deserts” in larger urban areas. A food desert is an area dense with people but lacking in places to shop for nutritious food. “It happens here as well,” Varner says. “People don’t have access to good, quality food and have to buy at convenience stores.”


On a Mission to Educate

The first classes offered by UG took place at the Potawatomi Conservatory. Stewart estimated about 10 people would show up, but instead 40 came. Now it’s not uncommon to have 86 people gathering to learn about composting, container gardening, crop rotation, pest control and beekeeping. The free classes, offered for four years now, are underwritten by PNC Bank.


A summer camp for children in the LaSalle Square neighborhood is in its second year with sponsorship by Beacon Health. Middle-school aged children get a chance to learn how to grow food and share what they’ve learned with their families. 


UG recently hosted 10 students from the University of Michigan who spent their spring break on a hunger immersion project, working to get the gardens ready for spring, meeting the people of the community and learning about the collaboration that has made the little “seed of an idea” sprout into something much bigger. 



Sara and Mitch are the first to admit that the success of Unity Gardens has a lot to do with the tremendous outpouring of support from volunteers who do everything from donating buckets to teaching classes to “getting their hands dirty” doing the manual labor that is a part of growing things. 


Ken Bradford is a good example. A retired journalist, he’s been volunteering at Unity Gardens for a couple of years now. Mainly, he works with Yaciw building a below-ground greenhouse designed to keep the plants cooler in the summer and a little warmer in the winter. He appreciates the personal approach that is a hallmark of the gardens. 


“The food you get from the gardens doesn’t come out of a box or a can. You pick it yourself,” he says. You also can learn a lesson from it. If you pick kale or lettuce or mulberries or raspberries, Mitch and Sara can tell you how to serve it to your family. 


“Along the way you might learn that fresh fruit and vegetables taste better and if you grow some of your own food, you’ll be less dependent on the charity of others,” Bradford says. 


Sue Lowe has been a gardener for most of her life. “But I spent most of that time just worrying about my own yard,” she says. “I admire Sara and Mitch for involving the whole community in gardening and healthy eating.”


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