Ten Ways to Grow Your Own Food(shed)

by Tom Peterson

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays]

Rows of plants in a farm field.

Your church can do more for farmers--and creation--than just eat.

You may have already connected with your area farmers by eating some of their delicious peaches or tomatoes from a farmers’ market. But the link from those farms to your plate is fragile and could desperately use a boost. Perhaps the best way is to help restore the infrastructure of your local “foodshed.” Your church can be on of the front line of a movement creating a new sustainable food system for your community.

What is a foodshed? As a watershed refers to the area that drains to a river system, a foodshed is the area surrounding any metropolitan center that could locally feed that city. There is no exact measurement: Some say it’s a 100- or 150-mile radius, others say it’s an easy day’s drive from farm to city. Beyond the geographical distance, the concept includes the notion of a shared responsibility for stewardship of the land, water, biodiversity as well as people’s livelihood and culture within the area.

Your church’s members have probably helped build a house for a deserving family. Now they can help build something much larger: your local foodshed infrastructure — the complex system that moves locally grown food to the many places it can be eaten. Once robust in every community, in the last century this system was dismantled by the same folks who convinced us to eat Big Macs and replace apples with Ding Dongs.

Here are ten ways your congregation can help grow your local food(shed):

1. Food Tithe: Ten Percent
Work with your church to commit to sustainably sourcing ten percent of the food it serves. This goal is not too hard, but may still feel like a stretch. Keep a record (by cost) of the local, organic or fair trade food you buy. You may find it easier to join with other congregations or groups that have committed to sourcing food sustainably. Join a local food supply program or work with local farmers, especially for seasonal fresh foods. To launch the program, hold an all-local/sustainable meal and invite speakers to explain why eating sustainably matters.

2. Join or Form a Community Garden
Find the community gardens in your area and let your members know about them. Explore supporting an existing one, or join with a sister congregation to support theirs. Many gardens could use volunteers to work with youth or the elderly to help them learn skills or maintain plots. If your church has unused land that could be developed for a community garden, explore the level of interest in your membership or neighborhood to start one.

3. Join or support local CSAs
Encourage your membership to join a local Community Supported Agriculture program, where people buy “shares” of a small farm’s harvest in advance of the growing season. Through more than 12,000 CSAs in the United States, a rapidly growing number of farmers distribute produce, usually weekly, directly to consumers. Churches often serve as the farmer’s delivery spot. While CSAs are not designed to provide food for a large congregational meal, the farmer who runs one would be a great person to ask about available bulk food.

4. Locate your Local Food Gathering Spots, then Map Them
Your community probably has several places identified with local, sustainable food. Ask around; there may be a central gathering

Flowers for sale at a local farmers market.

A farmers market is just one local food gathering spot.

point in a café, coffee shop, grocery or farmers market. You may find a farmer or community activist who has taken the lead in guiding others. Get to know the players and understand why they do what they do. Consider mapping them to make it easier for others to visit. Find or create a mini study tour to visit sustainable farms, restaurants, food companies and farmers markets.

5. Create a Study Group
To better understand the food system you’re trying to engage, read books, watch some videos, and talk with local experts. There are plenty of choices for that church school or mission study group that likes to read books together for weekly discussions. A flurry of writers have recently tried a “year of eating locally”—the very idea would have made our great grandparents scratch their heads—with two accounts found in Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. For an overview, start with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Watch the videos Food, Inc. and Nourish. The Presbyterian Hunger Program and Church World Service have an excellent seven-session curriculum for congregations called Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table.

6. Meet your Co-Belligerents
You’ll likely find a number of groups already working in your area to create a sustainable food system. Their focus will range widely from rural economic development to reducing childhood obesity to starting community gardens and markets for low-income citizens. Get to know them! If they’re not already talking to each other regularly, help call them together. You may also find one group that plays a key role in networking, convening, and coalition-building with the others to accomplish a variety of goals. If so, explore with that group how your church can best help.

7. Organize a Volunteer Corps
Your church members are needed to rebuild a sustainable infrastructure—to build physical structures (even literal barn raisings), market programs, connect businesses and consumers with farmers, encourage grocery stores to carry sustainable food, join “crop mobs” to help do work on a local farm, educate others, and change their own and their organizations’ buying habits. By participating in all of these activities your congregation helps strengthen the health, economic well being (especially for the disenfranchised), and environment of your community.

8. Start a Campaign
Commit, as a church community, to a creative campaign to eat better. Give up junk food for Lent, or establish Meatless Mondays, soda-free zones, and so on. No explanation here. You figure it out and tell us how it went!

9. Advocate for Policy Changes in Your Foodshed

Girl eating a peach.

The fight for healthy produce is a fight for healthy children. (cc image courtesy Bruce Tuten via flickr)

Your church members can join with others to support changes in laws at local, state, and national levels that favor sustainable food. Engage with your local food policy council. Found in many states and cities, these grassroots coalitions join a variety of stakeholders working to improve the policies relating to food, such as Farm to School and regulations on small-scale farmers. In particular, look to support policies that favor getting quality, affordable food to underserved low-income areas. Your congregation can also support development of just food systems by working with advocacy groups like Bread for the World to support national legislation.

10. Join with Others to Conduct a Foodshed Assessment
For serious foodshed growing, help conduct a Foodshed Assessment. This study will analyze your area’s food system—land use trends, local farm production, food distribution, and consumption. It will likely “discover” that almost none of the food eaten in your area was produced anywhere nearby. The process should mix academic research—usually with a university or food policy institute—with an on-the-ground, community-based assessment of what exists and what is still needed to develop a local sustainable agriculture.

As your church moves into a few of these activities, it will not only make the connections locally but will better understand global systems of food and environmental sustainability. After breathing, there is almost no activity we do so regularly as eat and drink. If we’re a bit thoughtful, with just a fraction of our daily food, we can create new links to people around the world. With each sip of coffee, with each choice between a Twinkie and a locally grown peach, we can help build a future with less hunger.

Tom Peterson is Senior Director of Innovation at Heifer International where he has worked for 17 years. Prior to that he was editor of Seeds, a magazine about U.S. and world hunger. Heifer International works with communities both in the United States and around the world to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth.


  1. Suzanne Alford-Hodges says:

    Hi Tom, I’m remembering your wonderful input at All Saints Faith and Food Fair in Russelleville and wanting you to know that I continually to foist your “Ten Ways” on anyone who will listen and read. Another project is in the works and if you might be available sometime next year to be a part of it, let me know and we’ll keep you posted as it comes together. Suzanne Hodges 479-970-8058 cell

  2. Suzanne Alford-Hodges says:

    By the way, is there a printable copy of “Ten Ways” that would fit on one page, front and back? Suzanne Hodges

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