"We eat what we get. It’s not like I can say ‘I’m going to eat something healthy,'" says Joel, a resident of a downtown Atlanta shelter.
For Joel, and other homeless people like him, having a meal does not mean choosing between an organic pear and gorgonzola salad or locally-grown arugula with artisanal cheese. Instead, food options boil down to one thing: sustenance. The food is received mostly by donation, which means it's often cheap, non-perishable, and generally less than healthy.
However, one Atlanta nonprofit, the Atlanta Mission, has recently taken the term “community garden” to a new level by adapting a vacant lot in the downtown area and transforming it into a garden filled with raised vegetable beds. It's tended daily by the very men who inhabit the shelter and whose bounty will benefit the shelter’s kitchen.
These men aren’t strangers to the canned vegetables and processed starches that fill the shelves of the shelter’s kitchen, so they recognize the importance of the garden. “We get what we get,” Joel said. “This garden’s going to take a lot of the slack of eating healthy.”
Both men were a part of the garden from the groundbreaking on March 19, 2011, and both have seen the seeds that were sown grow into plants. Ty smiles as he said, “I just loved seeing it come from a seed. They’re our babies. I planted one and named it Zeus.”
For these men, the garden and the act of gardening mean a variety of things beyond the food itself.
“It’s not just about eating a tomato sandwich, but about doing something and seeing an end result. It’s just a real privilege to do something that feels like I’m a part of something,” Joel mentioned.
“I can just think while I’m out here. I look back at my life and think about where I want to go,” says Ty.
With reactions like these, it seems the garden’s aim has hit its mark, providing a space to think and belong for the men of the Atlanta Mission.
The project was dreamt up and put together by the Atlanta Mission with the help of Skanska, a project and construction development group, after a vacant lot between the two groups’ buildings sat overrun by weeds and used as a homeless camp.
“If these guys are growing their own food, it’s still ending homelessness in a way. It’s very easy to find passion in this,” said Atlanta Mission representative Joshua Harrelson.
For both Ty and Joel, a personal mission has blossomed. “I think it wasn’t a mistake that I’m here. There’s a bigger picture and I want to be a part of it. What we’re doing here is what we’re doing with ourselves. Pulling the weeds and putting in good food,” said Joel.
Both men have high hopes for the garden and are pleased with what they’ve done for it and it has done for them so far. In calling it “our own little Garden of Eden,” Ty reminds himself that the bounty that comes from community gardens like this one is fruitful for everyone involved.
For more information on the garden itself and ways to get involved, visit atlantamission.org/garden