Nonprofit Social Innovation Hub: Society of St. Vincent de Paul turns a parking lot into produce

Nonprofit Social Innovation Hub: Society of St. Vincent de Paul turns a parking lot into produce

SVDP urban farm

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul's urban farms produce hundreds of pounds of produce every week for the nonprofit organization's kitchens and food boxes. Photo courtesy St. Vincent de Paul.

by Troy Hill, ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation

November 3, 2021

The mission of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona is to house, clothe, feed and heal people in the community, as well as to provide service and volunteer opportunities. They accomplish this with a number of standard programs, such as a dining room and health clinics.

However, they’ve been able to break the mold in several ways, both before and during the pandemic, and forge innovative programs and partnerships that allow them to serve the community in a more effective, more loving way.

An initiative they started before the pandemic is their Urban Farm program, which utilizes almost three acres of land across the Valley to grow thousands of pounds of fresh produce for their dining rooms. Arizona State University was a key partner in launching the farm.

“We're demonstrating innovative grow methods — turning parking lots into urban farms with amazingly healthy soil — and growing and serving produce in our dining rooms that our folks really wouldn't otherwise have access to,” said Jessica Berg, Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s chief program officer. “[It’s] incredibly nutritious and life giving.”

Last year, they were able to harvest 33,000 pounds of produce that went either to their dining rooms or to families.

Volunteers are also a major driving force behind the program (as with all of SVdP’s programs), so they utilize their time to also educate them on urban agricultural methods.

Starting the Urban Farm program also opened up the door to a partnership that gained them access to a hoophouse with fish tanks. They now have around 1,000 tilapia fish and are using them for an aquaponics project.

The pandemic strengthened SVdP’s partnerships with several local restaurants as well. They couldn’t cook their own food because of safety concerns, so they were able to reach out and partner with restaurants from the area.

“We were either purchasing meals from restaurants or getting those meals donated, so that was also helping the restaurant business,” Berg said. “Some of our lunch partners really needed that income to stay open during the pandemic, so we're still continuing some of those partnerships as well.”

SVdP also modified their dining room service for the pandemic. Normally, they serve dinners “community style” in a large room full of tables, but that wouldn’t do for the pandemic.

To accommodate this, they created a “hybrid” model where many people were able to pick up their food to eat elsewhere. Berg said this was also very helpful for people who didn’t feel as comfortable staying or needed to be on the go. They plan to continue this model into the future, regardless of the pandemic.

They created a virtual volunteer program that allowed members of the community to serve from the safety of their own home. People could log onto their computers and help out with whatever needed to be done that day, and they ended up having volunteers from 41 different states.

“It's just a huge win for us and the community especially,” Berg said. “We’ve realized that there are people who are just more comfortable [volunteering virtually], for a variety of reasons. They may be unable to come in physically or emotionally. They really want to be connected, and so it's continuing as a huge part of our volunteer program.”

Innovation hub

Nonprofit Innovation Hub

We want to hear your success stories. Organizations are invited to contribute to the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Innovation Hub and share how they are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submissions will contribute to an indispensable resource and help lift up the nonprofit community during this time of need.