Nutritious meals, self-sufficiency, and therapy all spring from the New Hope Garden at the Austin Street Center in Dallas. A summer crop of tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, and more will be ready to harvest later this summer, providing food for hundreds of homeless clients who rely on the shelter every day.
In the meantime, the garden is tended by the people at the center, giving them a therapeutic outlet for the stress of life.
The hydroponics garden was the brainchild of the Leadership Dallas Class of 2017, backed by the Dallas Regional Chamber. The program, which started in 1975, empowers professionals in the Dallas region to become catalysts for positive change in the area.
The garden is something the 35-year-old homeless shelter has wanted for a long time, but it took the community coming together with a plan, along with donated labor, in-kind materials, and $120,000 in donations from corporations and individuals to execute it.
“We can have a sustainable way to provide nutritious food to Austin Street Center clients, and we can also make it into a work readiness and support program,” said Daniel Roby, executive director of the Austin Street Center. “If it weren’t for the partnership with the Dallas Regional Chamber, this project wouldn’t have happened. It’s done in such a way that’s supportive of the community, the environment and our guests here at Austin Street Center.”
The shelter serves more than 900 meals a day and provides food for 2,700 people a year. Every person who comes to Austin Street Center gets a safe place to sleep and shower along with clothing and meals. The food from the garden will supplement that, Roby said.
Companies such as Jacobs Engineering, Halff & Associates, Hunt Consolidated, and HollyFrontier worked together to make the project happen.
Scot Sanders was part of the Leadership Dallas class and served as the project manager because of his role with Jacobs Engineering.
The people who work in the garden will learn valuable skills so they can grow their own food, becoming self-sufficient while also receiving the therapy that comes from working in the dirt, said Sanders, a principal with Jacobs Engineering.
“If they learn those skill sets and traits they can help feed themselves,” he said. “We’d like to see this spread and definitely participate in more down the road. People are starting to see [that’s a resource] we have available to us. We have land, and we have the knowledge on how to farm it.”
He donated his time and effort to manage the project, which he sees as a critical part of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawling’s initiative on poverty.
Rawlings released a statement thanking the chamber and Leadership Dallas for working with Austin Street Center to make this happen.
“The new garden will truly bring ‘New Hope’ to Austin Street Center residents by not only providing a source of food and income but also a therapeutic activity for those who struggle with mental health issues,” Rawlings said.
Digging into the garden
The New Hope Garden uses traditional raised beds and a modern aquaponic system that recycles water, a first for a Dallas homeless shelter.
Here’s how the aquaponic system works:
- It starts with a tank full of fish, that fertilize the water with their waste.
- That water is pumped into a plant bed where the fruits and vegetables break down the nutrients from the waste and absorb them.
- The water is returned to the fish tank, and the process starts again in a closed-loop system.
“It uses one-third less water than a traditional garden, so it’s more sustainable and environmentally friendly,” Sanders said. “[The fish] are part of the filter and nutrient system. In the long run, they’ll be able to harvest the fish, too.”
In addition to the fruits and vegetables, there’s an herb garden with 15 different plants growing.
They’ll also harvest the seeds from the plants so they can continue to grow new crops without having to buy them.
Lenny Hughes, director of landscaping architecture and planning for Halff Associates, led the design for New Hope Garden as part of the Leadership Dallas class. He worked after hours putting in his personal time to coordinate the project.
Now he’d like to see more.
“If these things were placed throughout South Dallas and Oak Cliff along with farmers markets, this could prevent the food deserts that are there,” Hughes said. “We wanted to make sure we had a design that was sustainable, low maintenance and didn’t use a whole lot of water. We looked at using a lot of adaptive plant materials.”
The garden also has a shaded pavilion and two pergolas that let in natural light for relaxation and contemplation. There’s even a prayer garden with flowers.
“It’s about being more at peace in the garden area,” Hughes said.
Digging into the funding
The Leadership Dallas Class started raising money for the New Hope Garden in the fall. In the first few months, they got $30,000, but knew much more was needed.
Corporate sponsors and individuals stepped up, quickly raising $120,000 in cash. Another $80,000 was donated through in-kind labor and materials.
There’s even room to expand the garden with eight more traditional raised beds in the future.