Grace Garden helps families in need

Pantry provides fresh fruit, vegetables from garden


JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – The Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry teamed up with volunteers Thursday to improve an innovative garden geared to help families in need.

What started as an empty lot off Sixth Avenue South has gone green.

"They just started out with 48 vegetable beds and now they have a greenhouse," said Anthony Patrick, of Home Depot.

BEAM has been serving the Jacksonville Beach community for about 30 years, helping families with housing and utility assistance. But its full-time pantry is also making a big difference.

"Most of what you see in food pantries is rescue food. It's what comes from the grocery stores that might otherwise be disposed of," said BEAM Executive Director Susan King.

King said while the donations from grocery stores help, it's usually out-of-date food. She said everyone deserves to have a fresh meal, and BEAM came up with a solution -- Grace Garden.

"They actually come in and select food, working with trained volunteers," King said. "They select within nutritional guidelines, so many fruits, so many vegetables, so many proteins -- kind of the 'my plate' theory."

Since last year, the Grace Garden has put over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce onto the plates of low-income families. The garden has produced squash, raspberries, mushrooms, herbs and more, but not without the help of Home Depot and community volunteers.

"These guys are remarkable," King said. "They built the boxes. They're now coming in for phase two to help create these pathways."

"We get our hands dirty, we get involved," Patrick said. "Even though we're volunteering our time, we get more out of doing this type of -- doing this community service than anything."

The Grace Garden has been a huge success so far, but the organizers say the garden is labor-intensive and could get expensive at times. So while looking for alternative ways to offer fresh produce, they stumbled upon a new technology: aeroponic gardens.

"We had one of those 'aha' moments," King said. "You can grow things in a tenth of space, with a tenth of the water."

There are 12 towers that are 8 feet tall and grow vegetables like spinach much faster and with less resources.

BEAM hopes the Grace Garden will continue to flourish and serve as an example and training facility for other food pantries. It also offers nutritional advice and cooking lessons.

The Grace Garden has been such a success that BEAM is in the process of opening a new food pantry in the Mayport area.