As youth come through DOOR Atlanta this summer, they’ll find something on their plates that you wouldn’t expect on a weeklong service trip: local, organic food.
Tim Showalter Ehst, the interim co-director of DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection) in Atlanta and a Goshen (Ind.) College graduate, is in the midst of planning and creating menus that will allow the DOOR staff to feed their young volunteers with healthy food grown around the city. It’s a not a typical focus for a summer mission trip, but Showalter Ehst believes that food justice is an important issue to raise with the high school and college students that will serve in the city this summer.
“One goal [for the summer] is that 80 percent of the food they eat while they’re here will be local and organic,” Showalter Ehst said. “But a bigger goal is to talk with DOOR participants about the new way to look at food. Where our food dollars go is a Christian issue and part of living intentional Christian lives.”
DOOR is a joint program of Mennonite Mission Network and Presbyterian Church USA that invites high school- and college-aged young adults to serve and see what God is doing in six cities around the United States: Atlanta, Chicago, Hollywood, Miami, Denver and San Antonio.
In the past, a limited budget meant that DOOR directors simply went to the nearest grocery store and bought inexpensive, yet healthy, food items in order to keep costs low for youth groups. Showalter Ehst is trying to change that mindset by investigating low-cost ways to bring local food to DOOR.
“Cost is the biggest rub,” Showalter Ehst said. “Mennonites often have this deep-seated need to buy the cheapest thing on the shelf.”
Showalter Ehst has found a distributor who can bring food directly to DOOR, which saves money on gas. He’s buying a lot of items in bulk, and he says that DOOR directors from other cities are eager to hear about his summer experiment in local eating.
“I’m getting a lot of great feedback from the other directors who want to know how it’s going,” Showalter Ehst said. “We’re all hoping that this can work.”
After three weeks of groups coming through for spring break work, Showalter Ehst is positive about his food experiment so far.
“We’ve had great experiences talking about this stuff with the groups,” said Showalter Ehst. “What’s important is the exposure. It matters that coffee has been cheap for the last 50 years because we’ve been paying Nicaraguan farmers $1.50 a day instead of $10. Connections that haven’t been made before are being made.”
Showalter Ehst became interested in food justice issues and farming during his time at Goshen College. After he and Krista, his wife, graduated, they moved to a family farm in Kentucky for a year to learn about the day-to-day life of a farmer.
“We were told it was hard and we wouldn’t make any money,” Showalter Ehst said. “I wanted to see if I could handle it, and it turned out I could. It was really rejuvenating and energizing for me.”
But considering themselves “farmers” wasn’t enough.
“We asked what, beyond that, is our calling?” Showalter Ehst said. “Krista’s focus is: How do we get good food to people who otherwise don’t have access or can’t afford it?”
With these questions in mind, Krista and Tim moved to Atlanta so Krista could attend seminary. Tim was anxious to find farm work, and Berea Mennonite Church had a six-acre plot of land in the middle of the city. They were brainstorming about how to use it and considering the possibility of a community supported agriculture program when Showalter Ehst approached them.
“His coming seemed like an answer to prayer,” said John Wierville, pastor at Berea Mennonite Church. “What Tim brought us was a willingness to work, to labor in the creation, day in and day out to put in a large garden and take it to market. He loved his work, and it was a joy to behold that love.”
The church built a barn and surrounded the plot with wood fencing to create the feel of a farm in the city. “They took a financial risk and bet that I could make it happen,” Showalter Ehst said.
Wierville says that the church sees the creation of the farm—now called Oakleaf Mennonite Farm—as a witness and an act of co-creation.
“Having a farm is not just a way to raise food for the hungry or to find ways to fellowship with one another,” he said. “It is a way of being at worship in God's creation, working with our God to bring the new heaven and the new earth. “
He added that the farm gives the church an identity as a different kind of community, one that is as much about living a new way as it is about particular beliefs.
“The farm is a place that brings all the many people from our neighborhood together regardless of race, economics, or religion,” Wierville said, “and it brings strangers to our place, too.”
For immediate release.
Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.