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Oasis in Food Desert

Herbert L. White | 3/30/2011, 11:25 p.m.
Robin Emmons, founder of Sow Much Good, prepares soil for planting at her Huntersville home. The non-profit grows organic produce in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. / Photo by Paul Williams III  

Non-profit Helps Low-Income Produce Healthy Habit

Feeding people is a dirty job, but Robin Emmons doesn't mind.

Emmons, founder of Sow Much Good, a non-profit organic farming initiative for underserved communities, broke ground earlier this month on a production garden at her Huntersville home.

Last week, she launched a garden at Ashley Park Elementary School to engage students in the science of agriculture. The harvest - blueberries, radishes and leaf lettuce - is expected to be ready by late May.

"Our goal is to educate people about the benefits around eating nutritionally dense food products, specifically those that are organic, and taking control over their food source," Emmons said. "We can't grow enough to feed the need, but if people understand the benefit and understand it's not impossible to do it for yourself, maybe we can create a movement that turns into a revolution."

Sow Much Good, which Emmons launched in 2009, aims to reach out to low-income residents in Charlotte's food deserts, where access to fresh produce is limited by economics or the lack of supply. The initiative's goal is to empower families and
communities to grow and prepare their own food.

"I think in underserved communities where there's not been access or we've lost touch with what our grandmothers did outside our back doors, there's an education component that has to go along with that," Emmons said. "We can't just set up gardens; we have to go engage communities and answer their questions. Many people think Type 2 diabetes is in the cards, that's their fate. They don't understand that's not necessarily a genetic thing."

SMG is an accidental mission. Emmons became an advocate for her chronically homeless and mentally ill older brother, Brian Hill. As part of his recovery, Emmons made a point of providing him fresh food from her garden. Not only did it improve Hill's well-being, it provided inspiration.

"He was being fed, but he was primarily being fed out of cans and packaged food - nothing fresh," Emmons said. "He put on a lot of weight, became hypertensive and borderline diabetic. I am a gardener, so I very naively said 'I am going to plant an extra row.'"

Economically-challenged communities can benefit from home-grown food, said Elizabeth Racine, a UNC Charlotte professor who co-wrote a study that identified so-called "food deserts" where stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce.

Eating balanced meals, she insists, helps alleviate maladies like high blood pressure and cancers that strike African Americans at higher rates than the general population.

"What communities can do first is have a demand for those foods," she said. "From the work we've done in food desert communities, there is a demand for healthier foods among the population.

"The best way to meet the demand is to provide those kinds of foods maybe in a farmers' market kind of style. That's the way you can meet the demand in an immediate way for fresh fruits and vegetables."

At Ashley Park, students and volunteers from Dress for Success prepared the soil for planting and an outdoor classroom to study the growing process.

"I was asking the other morning if our kids had ever seen an ear of corn," said Donna Alexander and second- and third-grade teacher at Ashley Park. "My mom used to make little corn dolls when they were children. A lot of kids haven't been exposed to planting, gardening, those type things, so with Sow Much Good, they'll be able to see how things grow."

As Emmons talked to more people, she found a need for healthy, organic food was especially acute in economically challenged urban neighborhoods that lacked access to fresh produce. Partnerships with businesses, colleges and neighborhood groups helped launch the first production gardens that provide economic and social benefits through urban farming.

"You've got to have people to make that happen," she said. "My hope is to model this in other areas of the country once we have the pilot and the success here. The need is significant, not just here, but across the country."

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