Karen Flotte: Urban farmer ‘digs deep’ to nourish body and soul

William Motchan
Karen Flotte at Central Reform Congregation’s mitzvah garden. Photo: Bill Motchan

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Standing in a field of sprouting collard and mustard greens, Karen Flotte surveys the 32-foot square of tilled land and the raised beds containing everything from turnips and beets to lettuce and potatoes — all of it standing in the shadow of Central Reform Congregation. 

“The first year we were gardening, they produced 80 pounds,” she said. “Last year, we were at 1,100 pounds.” 

Trinity Food Pantry — and the people who depend on it — is the biggest beneficiary of that crop but Flotte believes she and her congregation get something out of it, too. As many as 50 volunteers might do at least some tending of the mitzvah garden during the year. 

“A really beautiful community has grown here within our congregation,” she said. “It brings a lot of light and energy to people. It is a real healing place for many people. We gather every Sunday night and it sets the week for all of us before we return to the busyness of the work week.”

The project, which Flotte has spearheaded with co-congregant Wendy Bell, is now in its third year of growth and has become an almost year-round affair. CRC now plants for three seasons. After these crops harvest, Flotte and her fellow gardeners will replant okra, sweet potatoes, green beans and cucumbers in the summer before returning to greens in the fall. 

“One of the things about greens is that they are the nutrient powerhouses in the plant family,” she said. “They provide the most dense and most needed nutrients for the human body.” 

The effort came out of a larger partnership between the synagogue and local churches to address issues in the community such as food insecurity for the working poor. 

But Flotte and CRC are now helping to replicate the idea elsewhere by teaching the techniques of growing a garden to help pantries. In October, they partnered with various local groups to hold a daylong workshop at the temple on the topic. Those efforts are now bearing fruit outside the Jewish community as the project is working with schools in both South County and University City to start or convert their own gardens to feed the poor. 

“Food insecurity is rising in the U.S. and it has just skyrocketed in the state of Missouri over the last 10 years. We are one of the most food insecure states in the nation,” Flotte said. “The more awareness we can raise and the more fresh food we can get in the hands of people that are hungry, the healthier their lives become.” 

For Flotte, deriving joy from healthy food comes naturally. Both her parents were in the medical profession and she developed a sense of the importance of health from working in her dad’s office. 

“My father was also a great gardener,” said the 56-year-old native St. Louisan. “My mother’s mother also produced most of her own food so I really learned about gardening and providing fresh food from my roots.” 

Flotte, who was raised Catholic, said that, even before her conversion, she always had a fascination with Judaism with its emphasis on tikkun olam. She had spent much of her life in non-profits and enjoyed the idea of making the world a better place. When she attended services at CRC, she felt she’d found the answer. 

“I really knew that I’d come home in a really powerful way,” she said. “It is an extraordinary experience being a member of CRC and its legacy of commitment to social justice.”

She worries today about broadening wage gaps, poverty and the environment. On a personal level, her work with the crops seems to bring all of that into focus. 

“The environment, food insecurity and poverty, care of the Earth, care even of ourselves, all integrate around the act of gardening,” she said. “It has a practical dimension. It has a spiritual dimension. It has a physical health dimension both for us as gardeners and for our community.”

“It is a way that we connect to the Earth, to our spirit and to our neighbors in a really impactful way,” she added.

The mitzvah garden isn’t the only CRC undertaking in which Flotte is involved. She also helped with the Room at the Inn initiative, a temporary shelter for homeless women and families, and assisted the synagogue with its efforts to help provide warm shelter during this winter’s polar vortex. 

CRC’s Rabbi Randy Fleisher said that Flotte has tilled fertile soils in both the garden and the community. 

“To deliberately use a garden metaphor, Karen Flotte digs deep,” he wrote. “Everything she takes on at CRC — initiatives of social justice, environmental justice, adult education and more — is done with true depth of theology, commitment, awe and joy.” 

Executive director Nancy Weigley echoed those comments saying that the temple is fortunate to have Flotte on the team. 

“Karen is one of those super smart, goal-driven and absolutely delightful volunteers to work with at CRC,” she noted. “Not only does she take a project and run with it, she also initiates projects that fulfill our mission and usually finds grant money to go along with it.” 

For Flotte, it is all in a day’s volunteering. Describing tikkun olam as “the cornerstone of my life”, she enjoys the optimism CRC’s work provides her. 

“Being a part of this community and knowing that there are people willing to stand up and speak out and not only work for the big change, the systemic change but also to meet the immediate needs, gives me a tremendous amount of hope,” she said. “Somehow, I think we’ve got this.” 

Karen Flotte

Age: 56

Family: Husband is John Posey, one son

Home: St. Louis

Fun Fact: Flotte holds a master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute. Her thesis was on Christian-Jewish dialogue.