BEAM’s Grace Garden brings fresh produce, peace to families in need


When the Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry’s (BEAM) Grace Garden was first envisioned three years ago, it came from humble beginnings.

More than 40 truckloads of dirt and sand, bundles of wood beams and a storage shed occupied the plot of land on Sixth Avenue. Seedlings overwhelmed the ministry’s office space and not so much as a gate existed on the previously vacant lot.

Today, the garden is teeming with life. The 6,000 square-foot farm is home to more than 40 raised 4-by 12-foot beds that house flowering produce. Bell peppers, eggplants, strawberries and watermelons tumble out of their confines, and marigolds, sunflowers and zinnia beckon swallowtail butterflies and bees.

Aeroponic vertical growing towers and a 16- by 24-foot greenhouse offer shelter to seedlings, while an irrigated shed stocked with damp logs grows mushrooms. Just outside of the garden’s gate are strategically planted wildflowers warding predatory insects away, as well as a growing patch of blueberries, figs and squash.

Located at BEAM’s offices at 850 Sixth Ave. S, in Jacksonville Beach, Grace Garden is spearheaded by Director of Food Services Mary Ellen Waugh, who said the program’s third year has been very successful. An estimated 24,000 people are now serviced through BEAM’s food banks, and the team has set a goal of supplying 750,000 pounds of produce by the end of the year. The garden produces a harvest every day, supplementing the adjacent food pantry’s fruits and vegetables.

“We try to address healthy eating by supplementing the produce in the food pantry,” Waugh said. “Often times, low-income families fall at the lowest chain of a healthy diet. Many experience health issues because they don’t have the means to eat fresh, healthy food. So we want to create a place for people in crisis.”

BEAM’s food pantry is distinguished by the help offered by the Grace Garden. as most food pantries struggle to obtain fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. In addition to the produce supplied by the garden, families have options in BEAM’s food pantry mini-market, where they can select foods and necessities.

Waugh said the garden is supplied with seeds from Home Depot, packets of which line the walls inside of her office like a stockroom. Grace Garden’s harvests are plentiful, as each seed packet fills an entire 12-foot box, and many of the seeds are for “quick grow” vegetables and fruits to steadily supply the food pantry. The garden grows only seasonal produce, and this summer will be harvesting tomatoes, strawberries, watermelon, okra and green beans among several other fruits and vegetables.

“The idea is to offer low-income families many more options while still addressing their needs,” Waugh said. “In the pantry, we arrange things based on need and nutritional value while bringing the items to eye-level and making them accessible to everyone.”

For Waugh, however, it’s about more than just vegetables.

“The Grace Garden is beneficial in more than one way,” she said. “It’s about peace, activity and oneness with the earth and with others. Planting a garden is believing in the future.”