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Blackberries, figs, tomatoes and other plants are sprouting up at Jubilee Community Church in north St. Louis’ Fairground neighborhood.

Project Oasis, a vegetable garden, orchard and wildflower patch, is part of Jubilee’s community development work to “rebuild and renew the city,” said Andy Krumsieg, a pastor at Jubilee Community Church.

“Prayers are good, but reality check is we’ve got to do things with our hands,” said Krumsieg.

Tidy rows of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers line the garden, while the orchard has blackberries, figs, cherries, serviceberries, jujubes and pawpaws.

“I enjoy that we have a garden in the neighborhood, because we really don’t have anything in the neighborhood,” said Donna Washington, a volunteer at Jubilee who spends about six hours each week tending to the garden.

Washington grew up in St. Louis and remembers when her parents used to bring home vegetables from the market. She says it’s tough to find fresh produce in the neighborhood now. In addition to enjoying her work in the garden, Washington is looking forward to having fresh vegetables in the community again.

Perks for people and pollinatorsThe produce grown at Jubilee will be used by the church and sold to restaurants around St. Louis, said Krumsieg. Proceeds from these sales will be used to employ two or three people full time during the growing season. A portion of the crops will also be set aside for community members to harvest.

Interspersed among the fruits and vegetables are wildflowers, which provide food for pollinators.

“The amount of edible perennial plants that are in the orchard is going to be an incredible little oasis for local pollinators and people,” said Rebecca Weaver, cities program manager for The Nature Conservancy.

Plants in Project Oasis are fed by rainwater that drains from the church’s rubber roof into a cistern below the garden. The cistern can hold up to 150,000 gallons of water, which then gets pumped into an irrigation system that provides water to the garden, orchard and wildflower area.

“Why not think of rainwater as the asset that it is,” said James Holtzman, partner at Clean Energy Design Group, who helped design the water retention and irrigation system at Jubilee.

Preventing sewage overflowsBy containing rainwater underground, Project Oasis helps prevent the sewage system from overflowing into rivers and streams surrounding St. Louis. Because of this, construction for the water retention system at Jubilee was partially funded through a grant from the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewage District.

MSD funding for green infrastructure projects, like Project Oasis, resulted from a 2011 settlement between MSD and the Environmental Protection Agency to address sewage overflow issues. MSD agreed to spend $4.7 billion to renovate the sewer system, $120 million of which must be spent on green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure projects involve growing plants to capture rainwater, building water retention systems, installing permeable pavement, and using other methods to prevent rainwater from entering the sewer system. MSD has spent $23 million of the funding to date, said Kaleena Menke, green infrastructure manager at MSD. All renovations must be completed by 2039, after MSD proposed a modification to the agreement that was approved by the EPA in 2018.

MSD appropriates about $5 million for green projects each year in the form of small grants for homeowners and large grants for bigger plots of land, said Menke. Although many are interested in accessing these funds, MSD currently reimburses individuals or organizations after their projects are finished.

“Most of the time, community-based organizations don’t have $180,000 up front to be able to take advantage of these opportunities,” said Weaver. The cost of borrowing money can also be prohibitive.

“I think it is a barrier in our program,” said Menke.

Community partnershipsJubilee raised the money for the water retention system from friends in the community, Krumsieg said. Partnering with other St. Louis organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, also helped bridge the reimbursement gap and expand development of Project Oasis.

The Nature Conservancy provided Jubilee with a grant that paid up front for a portion of garden soil from St. Louis Compositing and consulting fees with James Forbes of Good Life Growing and Matt Lebon of Custom Foodscaping. Grant funds will also be used for storytelling, outreach and training activities, Weaver said.

As a whole, Project Oasis can serve as a prototype for other churches and organizations throughout St. Louis that want to invest in community development and greening efforts, said Krumsieg. Building similar gardens could prevent massive quantities of rainwater from entering the sewer system, while bringing fresh produce, wildflowers and jobs to community members.

“We ended up with something that’s beautiful and we ended up with something that’s going to be a wonderful tool for the community for decades,” said Krumsieg.

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