New efforts expand food options for low-income neighborhoods and elderly

Growing the market for local foods

Two different organizations in the Charlotte region are using borrowed land and volunteer labor to get fresh, local food on the plates of people who need it most.

Sow Much Good raises vegetables to sell well below market cost in low-income neighborhoods that are far from traditional farmers markets, while Friendship Gardens, started by Slow Food Charlotte and the meals-on-wheels program Friendship Trays, connects a web of independent plots to raise food for elderly and shut-ins.

Now, both groups are poised to make leaps that, if successful, will significantly expand their impact in the community.

Gardening to farming

If Robin Emmons seems a bit tired these early-summer days, the 200 onion sets, 300 tomato plants and countless squash starts may have something to do with it. Emmons is executive director of Sow Much Good but running the Charlotte not-for-profit is as much about planting as planning.

“Sow Much Good started literally in my backyard,” says Emmons, the organization’s sole employee. “It began in earnest in 2008 for the purpose of serving people left out of the local food movement – poor people.”

With a grant from Wells Fargo to build a demonstration garden, Emmons began recruiting partners, volunteers and more plots. Last year the group raised nearly 5,000 pounds of food – everything from okra to tomatoes to watermelon – and then sold it below cost at stands in low-income neighborhoods, so-called “food deserts.” Tomatoes, which might sell for nearly $2 a pound at the giant Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, go for something like 20 cents a pound at Emmons’ stands.  Meanwhile, she donates produce that she grows in her own personal garden.

This summer, Emmons has a four-acre site in Huntersville loaned by a farmer who tilled the ground for her and is starting plants in a hoop house.

“I expect to have eight tons of food this season,” she says. “This is a dramatic up-scaling.”

With the new site, Sow Much Good has made the leap from gardening to farming. That’s the same jump that Henry Owen is hoping to make.

Owen, who recently moved from leading Friendship Gardens part-time to working full-time with the organization, is seeking funding to create an “urban farm learning center,” – a small farm in the city with vegetables, chickens and bees where food can be produced and job skills can be learned.

Owen said he’s having conversations now about potential donated property at a school and at a church for the farm, but isn’t ready to say more. He hopes to raise $50,000 a year to get the high-density farm started. It would be a location where he could hold more of the workshops he now offers – classes on worm composting, raising chickens, water conservation and canning.

He envisions visits from school children and the creation of a nutrition curriculum.  Friendship Gardens last year donated five tons of food to Friendship Trays to use in meals it delivers to shut-ins and the elderly. With a one-acre urban farm learning center, Owen says, that could jump to 15 tons.

He sees such a farm also as a center for transitional employment. “The model we would be based on is that of one of our close partners, Community Culinary School of Charlotte,” Owen said.

The school’s students, who have employment barriers, train in the culinary arts and get kitchen experience working at Friendship Trays. Some take a stepping-stone job in the school’s catering business before moving on. Owen would like to do something similar at the farm.

Says Owen, “I tell people that I don’t do this because we love broccoli – I do love fresh food, I love gardening. But more than all of that…I love the people we are teaching to garden, the kids that have never grown anything…up to the inmate that I farmed with that went to culinary school and who has now gotten a job.”

Volunteer powered

Both Sow Much Good and Friendship Gardens are capitalizing on a growing surge in garden volunteers – people who want to donate time to pull weeds or harvest vegetables.

“This is the time of year when all the corporate office dwellers get spring fever and want to get outside,” Emmons said. “We’ve had about 100 people already come out.” She regularly gets calls from companies such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Allied Bank or Fifth Third Bank asking about volunteering opportunities. Farmers have donated plants or expertise.

“It’s been a really great response,” she said. This season volunteers also will sell Sow Much Good vegetables at two new locations, one in the Double Oaks neighborhood in north Charlotte, and another in west Charlotte near Beatties Ford Road.

Friendship Gardens is supported by a cadre of volunteers, as well, including people like Richard Aldridge, who oversees a 2,600-square-foot vegetable garden at SouthPark Christian Church in south Charlotte. Some 16 families from the church have shares in the garden, one of 30 sites in the Friendship Gardens network. The gardeners donate several bags of food a week to Friendship Trays.

The church’s youth raised many of the vegetables from seed, Aldridge said. “When we had our first Saturday work day, the kids came with parents and helped transplant some of those seedlings,” he said. From gardeners to cooks to the eventual recipients of the food, he added, “there’s not a down side of any of it from beginning to end.”

Both Sow Much Good and Friendship Gardens are riding a national wave of interest in locally produced food.

“There’s a very strong movement around food access and a lot of that stems from health issues at hand, from not eating healthy fruits and vegetables, said Joanna Massey Lelekacs, state coordinator of the Farm Incubator Project.

She listed several other examples of efforts that rely on donated garden labor of land, from the Plant a Row for the Hungry program to networks such as Share the Harvest of Guilford County, which coordinates donations from community gardens.

For years, nonprofits followed the wider culture when it came to supplying food to the needy, Owen says, and instead of raising or getting locally produced food, simply relied on large supply chains of processed foods. "I think we’ve gone back to that knowledge and that ability to say, ‘we could just grow it ourselves,’” he said.