Just this once, it's OK to steal.
At least that's the plan for Metropolitan Ministries' food gardens.
For eight years now, the organization has built and expanded a series of raised beds around its property at 1112 McCallie Ave. — cultivating them in the middle of a food desert and encouraging everyone who needs extra vegetables on their plates to stop by and pick what they need.
It's an unlikely spot for an urban oasis. One bed sits at the base of the adjacent building's 25-foot brick wall and is separated from the nearby four-lane-road only by a sidewalk. But soon enough, the little spot will be overgrown.
"In 60 days or so, this will look like the Amazon," said Rebecca Whelchel, the executive director of Metropolitan Ministries, also known as MetMin.
On Good Friday morning, helpers from the Master Gardeners of Hamilton County lent their expertise to a group of volunteers and MetMin employees eager to get their food-to-steal gardens in shape to start serving the community.
Lisa Lemza, a lifetime master gardener, guided volunteers through the process, explaining why it's not time to plant tomatoes yet or showing them how to properly separate a seedling's roots so it will thrive.
"We'll throw in some parsley just for fun," Lemza said as she organized the plants going into a bed in front of the building.
Over the years, the organization has slowly expanded its arable land, adding raised beds from time to time wherever space is available.
"I guess we'll have to install one on the roof next," said Miller Blain, a marketing and development associate at MetMin.
Though the produce is free for the taking, employees at MetMin said they've never seen someone take unfair advantage of the opportunity and hog the fruits and veggies for themselves.
"People may take a couple tomatoes for a sandwich or something," Whelchel said. "The gardens grow steadily and people just take what they need."
According to her, food insecurity tells her and the other workers at MetMin a great deal about the other needs faced by the near-homeless or struggling clients they serve.
It's a gauge of how financially secure they are in the rest of their lives.
"Food insecurity and hunger are symptomatic of a much larger problem," Whelchel said. "If they need help with food, they usually could use help with rent or utility bills, too."
Two people who benefited directly from MetMin's work came on Friday to roll up their sleeves and help with the planting. Susie Gee and Rodney Gaines both graduated from the organization's nutrition program and wanted to stay involved.
"They've helped me a lot," Gee said. "I needed help with my bills and ran into the nutrition class teacher while I was here."
Gee enjoys gardening in her spare time and Gaines is a handyman who says he can take apart electronic radios or anything else he wants and put them back together good as new.
He set up two rain barrels for MetMin to use out back for the gardens and was eyeing a broken bed Friday morning while he figured out what to do next.
"I'm going to fix this box correctly," he said. "And I have to go to Lowe's and pick up a new hose for the rain barrel."
While MetMin does a lot more than garden, its raised beds are a labor of love for the community. And the organization plans to keep expanding, using every square inch of property to grow something good.
Standing next to a newly planted bed of cabbage and parsley, Lemza said, "Things want to grow and Mother Nature will plant something if you don't."
"And you may not agree with her taste."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6731.