EAGAN, Minn.

There is more than one way to introduce a story about a new gardening mission. The project could be described as sprouting, budding, growing, taking root — you get the idea.

But just.good.food is trying to create and strengthen partnerships between community gardens and organizations that provide food for those who are hungry. It’s a mission initiative of the synods of Lakes and Prairies, Lincoln Trails and Mid-America of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Sarah Moore-Nokes, general presbyter for Winnebago Presbytery, is the project’s catalyst. She originally described the project in 2011 to a small group of leaders from the three synods.

After finding funding, most of which came from the synods, the project sought participants and sent out its fall curriculum in 2012. Today about 50 congregations, from the Upper Midwest to one in Texas, are participating in just.good.food.

“So much of what this project is about is not about the specific components of what we want people to do,” Moore-Nokes said. “We’re not trying to have everybody do the same thing. What we’re really trying to do is get everyone to participate in the overarching concept, which is to grow and distribute food to people who need it.”

She’s passionate about that. When Moore-Nokes spoke last fall at a meeting of Synod of Lakes and Prairies, she described the Midwest — the home of the three synods — as an area with a history of agriculture.

“We are people who are connected to the land … You don’t have to go back too many generations to find the person or family that had been a farmer, who depended on the land he or she worked.”

But there’s another part. “We are also people with a higher than average poverty rate,” living in a food desert “where grocery stores are less common than bars.”

The project is still in its pilot stage and hasn’t completed its first cycle. Participants in the project have committed to receive curriculum, plant a garden, distribute food locally and report what was done. The initiative’s two sets of curriculum, one fall and one spring, have already been distributed.

There’s another very Presbyterian aspect to the program: its broader connection.

Shane Whisler and his wife, Pat Felter, are leading a new ministry called East Broad Outreach Center in Mansfield, Texas. The ministry, already involved in community gardening with vegetables from its plants contributing to its own food pantry, is now a part of just.good.food.

“I want to be connected,” Whisler said. “I want to be a part of something larger, a larger community, something like just.good.food.”

East Broad Outreach Center’s gardens increased substantially this year, going from six to 22. That growth should be a benefit to the pantry, Whisler said.

“Even if the donation from a garden is one item, we want to supplement the food pantry with organic food,” Whisler said.

At Chain of Lakes Church, a new church development in the northern Minneapolis suburbs of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, the congregation is setting aside one acre of its recently acquired property for community garden space.

“There’s a community need that’s not being met, and we can meet it,” said organizing pastor Paul Moore, talking about a shortage of city garden plots. “I think that’s the bottom line.”

There’s still a long way to go at Chain of Lakes. It is the first year of the congregation’s effort to host a community garden, but just.good.food., too, is in in its inaugural year. “We’re just getting started,” Moore said. “This is a long-term effort.”

And the gardens will have an added benefit to a new church that identifies itself as a place where strangers become friends. John Ivers, who chairs the congregation’s facilities and properties committee, said, “This certainly will be a nice way to reach the community and let them get acquainted with us … Of course a gathering place like the garden, with a mix of both congregation members and members of the community, that’s an ideal strangers-become-friends atmosphere.”

The community gardens will also add to the congregation’s existing commitment to its local Manna Market, a project that provides food for those in need. The congregation currently helps out at Manna Market twice each month.

That helping out to provide wholesome food to the hungry is the driving force behind just.good.food.

“I’m thrilled with the start we have,” Moore-Nokes said, pointing out participants in seven states across the three synods and Texas.

Moore-Nokes, noting her dual role as the initiative’s coordinator and as a general presbyter, said she gets to work on the project “in two-minute increments.”

Even in those small bits of time, just.good.food. is on Facebook, a website is in the development stage and two mailings have already gone to participating congregations.

The first mailing last fall included a curriculum focused on the themes of stewardship, creation and the theology of abundance, and included information about connecting gardens to the community.

The mailing early this spring included a garden sign, scale for weighing produce, gardening education materials, resources for connecting with local food pantries and a sample recipe card.

The recipe card is just one of the useful tips. “We’re encouraging congregations to find easy recipes that use the produce they’re producing,” Moore-Nokes said. “One of the pieces of feedback we’ve heard from congregations that are already doing this is that sometimes people get produce they don’t know how to use. What do you do with kale? What do you do with eggplant?”

Just.good.food. is even more than generating fresh produce that can be distributed to the hungry.

“In the course of becoming gardeners,” Moore-Nokes said, “we expect that people will connect to some of the bigger issues facing society, such as poverty, local food, sustainability and climate.”

The opportunity to participate in just.good.food. will always remain open, Moore-Nokes explained. It’s a simple matter of contacting her at sarah@winnebagopresbytery.org.

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. He is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.