Wake County

Volunteers find fertile ground in Raleigh ‘food desert’

A group of volunteers plants fruit trees and bushes in the backyard of South Park’s Neighbor 2 Neighbor organization. The trees were planted to help residents learn more about gardening and fresh food, and likely provide a healthy snack.
A group of volunteers plants fruit trees and bushes in the backyard of South Park’s Neighbor 2 Neighbor organization. The trees were planted to help residents learn more about gardening and fresh food, and likely provide a healthy snack. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

Lester Clay imagines a neighborhood of residents growing their own food in place of a 4-acre expanse of fenced-off concrete.

“Why not?” he says.

On Saturday, a group of about a dozen volunteers set out to, if not answer that question, ask one of their own. What would happen if 40 fruit trees and bushes were planted in the city’s most economically distressed neighborhood?

“It’s kind of a case study in build it and find out how it’s used,” Erin White, principal of Community Food Lab, the group that organized the City Fruit project, said. “We’re not making any rules about how it gets used and who gets to harvest. Hopefully the residents see it as a community amenity.”

South Park has been designated a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is ranked as the seventh most-distressed urban census tract in the state by a 2014 University of North Carolina study. There are five convenience stores within a half-mile of one another, but the closest grocery store is a mile or two away. One of those convenience stores, The Galley, was opened last year by a local church as a fresh fruit and vegetable option in the neighborhood.

“One of the problems is food access, and there are problems with food awareness and food literacy,” White said. “Food is a present part of everyone’s lives and we’re trying to create more ways of interaction. Maybe people will be cooking together, going to potlucks, gardening. This project is beginning with a really humble approach; we’re starting small and we’ll see what happens.”

Apple and fig trees and blueberry and blackberry bushes were planted around South Park, some in residents’ yards, others on the property of community nonprofits. The trees and bushes were purchased with a $1,000 grant won from Awesome Raleigh, and landscaping company Greenscape donated mulch, soil and labor. Other volunteers joined in from a local church and high school.

Community Food Lab met Clay through cooking classes with neighborhood development groups Passage Home and Neighbor 2 Neighbor, where Clay tends a community garden and teaches gardening classes. That garden has only been around for a few months, but Clay’s ambitions are already larger than 100 square feet of kale and tomatoes. He has his eye on that 4-acre lot across the street, where the old Carolina Coach depot once stood, a place where residents might tend their own row and grow their own food.

First step: Education

City Fruit organizers said they don’t expect South Park’s relationship with food to change with the first apple plucked from a tree, but they hope it makes fresh food more visible. Clay, who lives in the neighborhood, said the conversation begins with education.

“First, people have to know what a certain food is and how to prepare it,” Clay said, adding that residents will be offered cooking and gardening classes.

Clay said he grows and cooks most of what he eats, that he loves collards and has come to love kale. He hopes that City Fruit will have an impact in South Park and that the neighborhood will take ownership of the trees.

“We have to prove this can be done, that’s the biggest thing,” Clay said. “These are natural resources, they’re renewable. People will see that you can get something for nothing.”

White said that residents and organizations will maintain the trees and that Community Food Lab will check in six months or a year from now.

“We’ll look at how the maintenance and care went and gauge perceptions,” he said. “We’ll learn if this is something that’s working or having an effect. We see this as a low-stakes way to ask some really important questions.”

Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234 ext. 104; @jdrewjackson

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