Learn to garden: This Oak Cliff church is an oasis in the food desert, and you can help

Photography by Danny Fulgencio.

A young woman walked into the Veggie Store one Saturday, pointed to a big pile of green beans and asked Bettie Montgomery, “What is this?”

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“I said ‘that’s green beans,’ ” Montgomery recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, I thought that only came in a can.’ ”

The encounter struck at the heart of what the Montgomery family and St. Luke Presbyterian Church are up against in South Oak Cliff.

The neighborhood is amid a food desert where residents lack nearby access to fresh food.

About five years ago, Montgomery says, she received a spiritual message to do something to improve her community.

“My faith drives me quite a bit,” she says.

A friend had introduced her to a food co-op called Bountiful Baskets, and she started picking up produce shares, which cost $15 and often included $30-$50 worth of groceries, to cook for her family.

That gave her the idea to bring produce to South Oak Cliff and make it available for free.

The message was clear: “Do this, and do it for the community.”

She brought the call to members of her church, St. Luke. 

Montgomery and her family and church members started buying co-op shares and handing out produce to anyone who wanted it in front of their church on Singing Hills Drive. They called it the Veggie Store. 

Now Montgomery and her son Ples Montgomery IV are working to gain nonprofit status for their charitable upstart, the Oak Cliff Veggie Project, which has grown to include initiatives toward nutrition and cooking education, gardening, composting and reducing food waste.

The Montgomery family and church members still offer the Veggie Store every third Saturday of the month starting at noon and ending when all the food is gone.

They receive donations from food distributors and from the Harvest Project, a food-rescue program that takes less attractive but perfectly edible produce that wholesalers otherwise throw out.

Americans waste about 30 percent of the food they purchase, according to endhunger.org.

That’s energy that could be turned into fertilizer to grow more food, Bettie Montgomery says.

“If we can close the loop on food waste, it brings costs down for producers and consumers,” she says.

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Her son Ples is 36 and a farmer at Big Tex Farms, and he is the steward of
St. Luke’s vast community garden.

He also helps neighbors who he’s met at the Veggie Store to build their own community gardens.

Gardens at four other Oak Cliff churches already are planned.

They envision gardens and agriculture programs in neighborhood schools and “grannies” who can help with gardening and cooking to “bridge the generation gap and keep seniors active.”

“We already know that if kids grow stuff themselves, they will eat it,” Ples Montgomery says.

Gardening teaches the value of food when people see what it actually takes to get food out of the ground.

“Food gives us so many opportunities. Sitting down at the dinner table, sharing, passing down traditional food and stories,” Bettie Montgomery says. “Family gatherings are usually done over a meal. Business meetings are done over a meal.”

Contact Oak Cliff Veggie Project on Facebook to volunteer at the Veggie Store or in community gardens.

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