Founder of South Bend's Unity Gardens receives national award from USA Today – South Bend Tribune

Sara Stewart, founder of South Bend’s Unity Gardens, wants to spread the word about what she calls the nonprofit’s “outrageous” mission of giving away fresh produce to anyone who needs it, with no questions asked and no strings attached.
That message got a boost this past week, when USA Today recognized Stewart’s community work with a national award from among hundreds of nominees across the country.
Stewart was one of 11 winners in the first annual “Best of Humankind” awards, recognizing “everyday people who have showcased the highest level of kindness, compassion and perseverance in 2021.”
The awards were announced Thursday in a live-streamed program hosted by “Today” show co-host Jenna Bush Hager. The South Bend Tribune is part of the USA Today Network.
More:Unity Gardens to offer free gardening classes on Zoom
The award came with a $1,000 prize, which Stewart says is a “ton of money” for Unity Gardens, but she added that she’s more thrilled with the show of support from voters and the publicity that could help spread the Unity Gardens concept to other communities.
“I was pretty excited because one of the goals is not just to make this difference in our community, but share the model,” Stewart said. “It’s outrageous to think we could grow free food for everyone. This is our opportunity to share Unity Gardens with other communities.”
Stewart won in the “Best of Earthkind” category. She said finalists in the 11 categories were narrowed down from about 600 total nominees. Combined, the finalists received more than 70,000 votes.
The win was even more meaningful, Stewart said, because she was nominated alongside a finalist from Phoenix, whose metropolitan area has a population of almost 5 million.
“We’re South Bend, Indiana. We’re little, in terms of population, and people tend to vote for things in their own community,” she said. “This community must have surrounded us with votes all the time.”
Stewart founded what would become Unity Gardens in 2008, with a modest plot of soil and help from a few friends and family members.
The organization now has more than 40 free-to-pick gardens throughout South Bend and the surrounding area, with seven full-time staffers and thousands of annual volunteers. In some recent years, Unity Gardens has given away 200,000 pounds of fresh produce, Stewart said.
Unity Gardens has also branched into children’s camps, nutrition and cooking classes, a summer internship program and a popular booth at the South Bend Farmer’s Market.
Even before Thursday’s announcement, Stewart said, she had begun to get calls from as far away as New Mexico, seeking information on how to implement Unity Gardens’ approach.
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Stewart said she has thought about how an expansion outside the South Bend area might look, but at this point is not planning to run satellite programs under the same organizational umbrella.
Instead, she said she envisions offering “mentoring” to groups that want to start similar gardens and use the Unity Gardens name, under the condition they adhere to her basic principles by offering free food without any requirements, such as providing proof of income or seeking employment.


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