Emma Stahl-Wert, a 2011 EMU grad, has been working on a project to increase food security by teaching garden skills, providing fresh, healthy food for the tenants, and engaging people in life-giving collaborative work. Photo courtesy Mennonite Mission Network.

EMU Grad Grows Hope in the Desert

Emma Stahl-Wert is growing hope, one vegetable at a time.

As garden coordinator for the Primavera Foundation, Stahl-Wert plans and manages community gardens at transitional housing properties in Tucson, Ariz., where she is in the middle of a two-year term with Mennonite Voluntary Service, a Mennonite Mission Network program.

Each week, Stahl-Wert, 22, works alongside residents, many of whom were formerly homeless, as they care for gardens and harvest their own fruits and vegetables. Together, they grow peas, potatoes, carrots, corn, melons and squash year-round.

Stahl-Wert said the purpose of the project is to increase food security by teaching garden skills, providing fresh, healthy food for the tenants, and engaging people in life-giving collaborative work.

Many of the residents at the two main properties where Stahl-Wert works had no prior gardening experience and were initially skeptical the gardens would be fruitful.

Much of Stahl-Wert’s early work focused on teaching people gardening basics and convincing them the project was worth their time. As plants began to sprout, optimism did too.

“These are people who have lived rough lives, who were very cynical about the gardens in the beginning,” she said. “But after a year of continuity, of watching the idea grow, they get very excited when they see the vegetables. It’s a tangible sort of joy.”

At first Stahl-Wert was the only person to tend the community gardens regularly. Now, four women from one of the housing properties routinely work with her.

Sometimes the women even prepare meals together. Stahl-Wert will never forget the first time she invited her gardening friends to cook dinner together using their own produce.

“They claimed to not like vegetables,” she said. “But once they tried the dishes, they said they loved every single one. That night they ate ridiculous amounts of vegetables.”

Stahl-Wert, who earned a degree in environmental sustainability in 2011 from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., was not sure what she wanted to do after graduation. The Pittsburgh native didn’t feel her skills were marketable and was not interested in working simply to make money.

When she came across the MVS garden coordinator position in Tucson, it seemed like the right fit. For Stahl-Wert, an avid gardener, MVS offered the perfect intersection of her interests in environmental science and social justice.

Stahl-Wert also enjoys the simple, communal living she experiences in her MVS unit house.

“I have been happily surprised to find myself in a voluntary service position that has a lot of responsibility and space for my own creativity,” Stahl-Wert said. “[Primavera was] interested in starting gardening programs but didn’t have the resources to create a full-time staff position to do it.

“Without a volunteer like me to get the garden program running, it may have never happened. That’s a pretty cool role for a recent college grad and first-year MVSer to play.”

Courtesy Mennonite Mission Network