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Growing Neighbors is small groups with wide impact

John Edmondson shows one of the compost buckets.


In his ministry with Shadle Park Presbyterian Church, John Edmondson grows food, relationships and community with a vision of food security, intergenerational connections and earth justice.

After 17 years on staff, John is director of both the church's family ministries and its Growing Neighbors (GN) initiative. He started in 2005 as full-time youth director. After eight years of learning the importance of caring for the whole family, not just one age group, he was invited to serve as the church's first family ministries director.

John began Growing Neighbors in 2016 as a volunteer, planting gardens around the church campus and neighborhood. In 2020, it became part of his paid ministry. Now GN has helped start or expand more than 60 "hyper-localized" community gardens at schools, homes, businesses, libraries and churches.

He helped several churches start gardens—Knox, Lidgerwood, First and Korean Presbyterian and Five Mile Community. Millwood and Opportunity Presbyterian also participate.

GN connects churches with the community in meaningful, practical ways, he said.

The family ministries and GN overlap in activities, including 5:30 p.m., Tuesday community dinners at the church, 5508 N. Alberta. They restarted this year after a hiatus for COVID.

From 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 6, the dinner features food from Nicholas DeCaro's Island Style Food Truck and a program, "Growing Artists," with a student art show and performances to raise money for GN and scholarships for summer art camps.

A recent community dinner, "End of the Growing Season Celebration," was a hoedown. It drew 115 for games, dancing and garden tours—a large gathering for the small church, John said.

"We create opportunities for families to serve and learn together at the midweek dinners, which are followed by activities for all ages, service projects, discussion groups and worship," John said. "Volunteers rotate to prepare meals and programs."

One Tuesday a month the church offers workshops on preparing and preserving foods the church and neighbors grow.

John grew up in the Reformed Church in America in Sacramento and came to Spokane to study communication, theology and music at Whitworth University. After graduating in 2002, he was youth minister for a year at Whitworth Presbyterian. Then he did marketing for three years with a Spokane Valley manufacturer of pesticide-free pest control products, before returning to youth ministry at Shadle Park.

In 2008, John joined Whitworth's first master's in theology cohort, completing it in 2011. In 2021, he earned a master of divinity at Portland Seminary and now seeks to be ordained by the Inland Northwest Presbytery for his ministry with Growing Neighbors, which he sees as a new way to be the church.

"We seek to grow relationships between people, between people and the world, and between people and our Creator," he said. "We do not force or expect participants to have any particular faith connection, but embodying Jesus' love for all things motivates our core team."

John said Growing Neighbors builds bridges with all sorts organizations. Its mission is to help neighbors grow and share healthy food and relationships.

GN encourages people to use organic and regenerative gardening practices.

"We avoid using chemicals, amending soil naturally with compost, mulch and minimal disturbance—leaving roots in the ground at the end of the season," said John, who helped in his family's garden, but had little passion for growing food until he was married and had two children.

"I learned by experimenting, trying new plants and talking with other gardeners," said John.

He became a master gardener after starting GN and now offers training with the Washington State University Master Gardener program, incorporating Growing Neighbors values.

As there are already many community gardens, John collaborates with them to share resources.

GN helps people to put in drip irrigation to reduce water use and weeds. It provides training and resources like seeds, soil amendments, plant starts, tool sharing and gardening advice. It teaches gardeners how to reuse kitchen and garden waste as compost.

John sees the effort as a way to improve food security. It challenges the U.S. food system that relies on big agriculture, and uses pesticides and herbicides. Transporting food long distances uses fossil fuels and contributes to climate change. He promotes food grown as locally and as healthily as possible because "eating food closer to the time of harvest means the food retains more nutritional value."

He said more than 90 percent of food eaten in Spokane is imported, but "a hyper-local food system is healthier for people and the planet."

While John has a small greenhouse for plant starts, he suggests creatively using structures already in place. For example, the church grows plant starts in a large room with big windows. Now local libraries with big windows are offering space to grow plant starts.

Several teams started around growing and sharing food.

• One offers sustainable food delivery in seven neighborhoods—West Central, Emerson-Garfield, Shadle/Northwest, North Spokane, East Central, Central Valley and East Valley.

"We share produce we grow as well as a variety of foods from local food bank partners. Volunteers deliver it in their areas to people whose mobility challenges hinder them from growing or accessing food," he said.

"Some volunteers deliver by bicycle. Any means of transportation is okay," John said, noting the need for more volunteers.

Another effort is Little Free Pantries. Since 2019, GN partners with groups like Caritas in Northwest Spokane to share food through more than 60 Little Free Pantries set up across the county beside homes, churches, schools, nonprofits, YMCAs and Transitions Home Yard Cottages. Teams have built and installed cases on posts that are like the Little Free Libraries.

"The little pantries are used regularly, stocked by GN volunteers and partner organizations, and by people we don't know who see the need and take up the cause," John said. "Our dream is to inspire and equip neighbors to own the mission, rather than relying on our organization to coordinate it."

For example, while he was on a mini sabbatical last year, people on their own initiative stocked the pantries and started a Facebook group informing people which pantries were stocked and which needed food.

Several little pantries were funded by Northwest Harvest and other partners have funded food and building materials for other pantries.

When someone wants to set one up, Growing Neighbors checks if the site is accessible and not too close to another.

John described some of the other teams:

  • Special Mobility Services is a key partner for food deliveries.
  • Some teams set up booths at farmers' markets—Emerson-Garfield, West Central, Garland, Millwood and Hillyard—where they share excess produce, tell people about Growing Neighbors practices and invite them to become involved.
  • "At farmers' markets, community events and neighborhood councils, we build relationships, share produce and spread our mission of helping neighbors grow healthy food and relationships  with those they already live, learn, work, play and pray near," John said.
  • Some teams expand garden plots on city land, in parks, on school playgrounds and beside churches. At Garfield Elementary School, where his children went to school, John helped staff build eight raised beds in a fenced area of the play field. Parents, staff, students and neighbors tend it.

• A Community Composting team in Shadle/Northwest Spokane invites people receiving food deliveries to save kitchen and yard waste in buckets for compost to feed plants.

To compost the waste, volunteers built compost bins with pallets. The team collects two- to five-gallon buckets from grocery stores, bakeries and Whitworth dining services and labels them with instructions on what to include. Those delivering food plan to collect full buckets and leave empty ones.

• With Empire Health Foundation funding, a strategic planning team is helping GN be as equitable as possible. A team member on the Carl Maxey Center staff, wants to start a garden and collaborate in East Central Spokane.

• Another team is working with public library branches not only to grow plant starts, but also to offer trainings, plant gardens and install little free pantries.

• A Growing Neighbors team is establishing relationships with members of Native tribes and learning from indigenous wisdom on caring for the land and growing more native edibles.

Still another team is exploring a proposal to develop sustainable communities with urban farming and tiny homes for mixed use including displaced peoples and those experiencing homelessness so people can build healthy relationships as they care for the land and increase food resources.

"GN does what is needed to help neighbors treat each other and all creation like a loving family. All we do with Growing Neighbors is an ongoing experiment and effort to partner with and follow the guidance of the Spirit in seeking shalom, peace, harmony for the whole community of creation," said John.

For information, call 327-5522 or email

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2022