September is Hunger Action Month.
But times have changed. It’s not about dropping off canned goods at the food bank anymore.
To get to the core of the hunger problem, Raleigh’s Inter-Faith Food Shuttle has launched an Urban Agriculture Training Program that will use the power of growing food to bring true change to the most food insecure neighborhoods in our community.
When Jill Staton Bullard co-founded the IFFS 23 years ago, the group focused on redirecting perishable food items – foods that restaurants, grocery stores and farmers market vendors were throwing away but were still edible if they could be stabilized and distributed quickly.
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It was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough.
The problem of hunger is actually twofold, Bullard explains. Of course you need income to purchase food items, but frequently people in food insecure areas don’t have access to healthy food even if they have the cash.
For example, in some areas of Southeast Raleigh, we have lots of senior housing but no grocery stores within walking distance. All they have is the corner store that sells beer by the can and individual cigarettes – the produce selection is nonexistent or very limited.
The IFFS started taking fresh produce into these communities every week, but Bullard knew it wasn’t a permanent solution.
She kept going back to a conversation she had with Raleigh leader Vernon Malone 20 years ago. Malone had told her “we might have been poor, but we didn’t know it because we were never hungry because we had gardens.”
So the IFFS started a community garden program.
National leader, local interns
But access is only part of the problem. To address the income piece, the group is introducing young people to the potential in growing and selling food through a new Urban Agricultural Training Program.
To get the ball rolling, they recruited Maurice Small, a nationally known urban agriculture expert and community organizer. Small has been part of the urban food revolution movement for the past 10 years, galvanizing change in his home state of Ohio and across the country.
The first thing he does when he comes to a community is identify the local youth he will be working with, his interns.
Once he has interns in place, the second step is the soil. “Without healthy soil, we are at a loss,” Small said.
Local residents offer their land as planting space, but when you dig into the earth in urban areas, you find more trash than soil – wire, old tires, appliances. So Small teaches his interns how to build raised beds and about creating rich soil through composting – especially vermicomposting, or composting with worms.
The third piece is the food. Small teaches the interns how to work with the soil to grow food. He teaches them about nutrition and food preparation. They visit restaurants and watch top local chefs prepare meals. And he coaches them to “become friendly farmers who can sell their food.”
“We are exposing them to the food life. They begin to see things different. It’s not just you on four blocks. You can see a change in a matter of months,” Small said.
‘Living a better life’
I spoke with two of Small’s interns as they were traveling to a brewery to pick up brew waste that their vermicomposting worms will turn into soil.
Fred Jeter, 24, explained to me that although the brew waste smells extremely bad, it is one of the most interesting things he had been exposed to so far. He is amazed that a nasty smelling waste product can so easily be turned into something beneficial.
Jeter was scraping by, running a landscaping business before this opportunity came along. Now, he said, “I am giving back to my community and working hard and getting paid to do it.” And his whole family is eating healthier food. “We are living a better life.”
What has surprised him the most is how quickly the whole community is becoming involved.
“We will be outside doing our work, and we have kids that come up and stand there and look at us and try to figure out what we are doing,” Jeter said.
“They say ‘Hey, what ya’ll doing? OK, can we come? Can we help?’ Everybody is trying to build a better community, a better environment. So far everything is working out. Everything is getting better.”
Dominique Smith, 18, has only been working with the program for a month, but he has already completely changed his diet, too. “I learned how to eat healthier,” he said. “Basically just preparing food yourself instead of using store-bought brands.”
Smith used to wash cars, but even after just a few weeks, he knows he wants to stick with the Urban Ag Training Program.
I asked him whether he was more optimistic about his future now that he has seen the potential the food life offers.
“I do see a brighter future for myself,” Smith said. “I would most definitely say I do.”