Berry Street Community Garden Fosters Connection

Eight years ago, students from nearby Vanderbilt University approached Sergeants Steve and Ernie Simms, officers at Nashville’s Berry Street Corps, and asked if they could plant a community garden on an empty plot of land adjacent to the corps building. The students were required to build community service time into their program, and it was their hope that the garden would become an important part of the struggling neighborhood.

Over time, it has become both a gathering place and a source of food for many in the neighborhood who struggle to put healthy food on the table.

For six years, the students raised funds, organized volunteers and maintained the garden until two years ago when they could no longer commit the necessary time to the project and members of the corps stepped up to organize it in their place.

Using tools, mulch and soil donated by Home Depot and volunteers from the corps and community, Berry Street has maintained the project all this time.

“It’s just another avenue of showing love to the community,” Steve Simms said. “Our mission is to help connect people and help people minister to one another. This is a way that people can have some hands on and show love to the community, which we hope reflects God’s love.”

The garden consists of nine above-ground beds growing familiar produce like tomatoes, with pear, apple and other fruit trees surrounding it. Anyone is welcome to come by and pick fruits and vegetables for personal use as needed. People from all walks of life come to the garden, many in the evening so that they will not be seen by their neighbors.

Last year, Sergeants Simms noticed a Somalian family whom they didn’t know coming by every morning to pick from the garden.

“One year, they came to Berry Street for an event and she walked up to me and said, ‘you don’t know me, but that garden fed me and my son last year,’” Ernie Simms said.

The garden has become so important to the community that each spring when replanting begins, members of the neighborhood and even city council members will come out with food donated from nearby restaurants, ready to dig into the soil.

“The garden is just one more thing that we can use to connect people,” Steve said.

The Berry Street Corps is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that includes a variety of income levels. Ernie Sims said that many affluent families live on the same streets as impoverished families.

“There are still about 30 percent of residents who fall into the poverty level,” she said. “Part of our mission is to just walk with these families through their transitions.”

They’ve tried to plant familiar foods like tomatoes that families will be familiar with but the garden has also become a teaching place for neighborhood and corps children, many of whom had never seen okra before it was first planted there last year.

“Our whole mission is to make that place feel like a community,” Ernie said. “It doesn’t take up that much room and is a great way to connect with people who may never go to church. It’s an open door to engage people and to show love in a way that is non-threatening.”

Many of the Vanderbilt students came to the corps after helping build the garden and were able to learn more about The Salvation Army as a church.

The Berry Street Corps has spent almost nothing on the garden over an eight-year period. They took a small area of unused land beside their building and turned it into a gathering place and a point of entry for people unfamiliar with the corps to experience compassion, care and love.

“It’s blessed so many people who have been able to eat the produce,” Steve said. “We’ve all got a little ground, ours is just on a side lot beside the building so, almost every corps could do it.”