Here’s the first thing I like about Bill Meeker, head gardener at the Garden O’ Feedin’, which provides free, fresh, organic food for poor people all over the greater Boise, Idaho, area: When I ask him how his one-third acre of raised beds could possibly have produced 20,776 pounds of vegetables last year, he answers, “Well, God’s involved.”

Indeed. Meeker and 115 volunteers grow their crops on land that abuts Vineyard Boise, a church in aptly-named Boise suburb Garden City, Idaho. Vineyard Boise is evangelical in all the ways that freak out an increasingly secular world. Their long statement of faith (available online) is full of turns like, “We believe that the whole world is under the domination of Satan and that all people are sinners by nature and choice.”

But here’s the second thing I like about Bill Meeker: When other churches visit to ask about setting up their own gardens, he tells them the secret is “three crucial things — compost, compost, and compost.”

Parishioners now arrive at Vineyard Boise carrying table scraps. They collect lawn clippings, but “only if they didn’t use any chemicals on the lawn,” cautions Meeker. Volunteers turn, turn, turn the compost bins. Companion planting — sugar snap peas with radishes, herbs with tomatoes — is practiced. Bible school classes help with the harvests on Tuesday and Friday nights.

When those in need arrive each Wednesday and Saturday, they start at a tent with a regular food bank—stuff in cans and bags. Then they visit the free medical clinic. And then they stop at what’s informally known as a “benevolent farmers’ market for no-cost produce.” Exchanges aren’t always Sunday-school sweet. “You see a lot of people come in who aren’t very thankful. They want more or not what you have. But they’re God’s children, just like me,” Meeker says. “If you keep that in mind, it’s okay.”

Actually, it’s better than okay. This year the Garden O’ Feedin’ farmers are doubling the land under cultivation. Before long the church will have 5 acres yielding organic fruit and vegetables—and bearing witness not only to its faith, but to the possibilities for all kinds of people to get involved in the fight for a workable future. “We have several people who used to get food here, and now they come volunteer,” says Meeker.

These days, Vineyard Boise is a model of green Christianity. The pastor of the church, Tri Robinson, was an ecology major and a high school biology teacher who lived off the grid in the mountains of California. When he eventually became a pastor and took over the Boise evangelical congregation, he brought many of his old values with him. Thank heaven. “If the statistics are true and Christians do comprise one-third of the world’s population, then what would happen if more than 2 billion people became serious about upholding the value of environmental stewardship?” he asks.

We got some sense of the answer last year when many leading evangelicals signed on to a statement calling for federal action on climate change. It began to change the politics of the issue, to break down its left-right, Republican-Democrat stalemate. In fact, it’s hard to imagine ever managing to build the political momentum for change without the involvement of religious communities around the world. Overcoming vested economic interests will require a moral charge—and our churches and synagogues and mosques are the last institutions we have that can still posit an idea for human existence beyond “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

But that’s an abstraction. Churches offer something else: a physical location, with ground to plant. They can provide a place to start making real the commandment from Genesis to till the earth and the Gospel sanction to feed the hungry. Last year the Garden O’ Feedin’ alone grew 2,200 pounds of cantaloupe—how do you like them apples?

Story by Bill McKibben. Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, the author of a dozen books about the environment, and the cofounder of the current campaign, a global grassroots effort to fight climate change. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Linking environmentalism, religion, and free food
Vineyard Boise, an evangelical church in Idaho, focuses on composting, companion planting and bible classes.