Note: This story has been updated to correct the title and organization for which Mikki Saager works.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that the Rev. Richard Joyner’s church sits in what is considered a food desert, surrounded by vast tracts of farmland. Yet with most of that land devoted to large-scale farming and the nearest grocery store more than 10 miles away, the congregants at Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church subsist on the type of diet to blame for so many of our country’s health problems: fried, fatty, high on sugar and salt, low on vegetables.
In 2005, Joyner, the church’s pastor, hit a turning point. That year, he presided over 30 funerals for people 32 or younger, due largely to diabetes or other conditions associated with poor diet. So Joyner set about making a change, using the pulpit of a church with nearly 300 members to preach the value of fresh food. He also started a small community garden tended by the church’s youngest members. The effort grew from there, and the garden produced more than food, empowering youth in an area where they had few opportunities. Eight years later, a group of 60 students tends 25 acres of vegetables and 130 bee hives during after-school and summer programs in which they also learn about healthy cooking, entrepreneurship and leadership.
The food is given away to local families and sold at farmer’s markets, with proceeds going back into the program or toward scholarships. More than 20 other local churches have joined in the effort.
“What students are learning and what we are learning as a community is how do we work with what we have, which is a whole lot of land and our own labor,” he says. “How do we produce the best and most sustainable community we can using just that?”
Joyner’s work earned him one of only six national Purpose prizes for 2014, a national award for people over 60 who are effecting positive change in creative ways.
“His work truly deserves national attention for its effectiveness in addressing chronic health problems, improving nutrition and the educational performance of youth and growing leadership and a strong community,” says Mikki Saager, a vice president with The Conservation Fund and the director of its Resourceful Communities program. She nominated Joyner for the award.
Those who know him from his previous work as a preacher and community activist weren’t surprised by his success.
“Reverend Joyner has always been a visionary,” says Doris Stith, director of Community Enrichment Organization, a youth-focused nonprofit in Tarboro he helped start in the early 1990s. “He’s a community person first of all, and he cannot be bound by walls. He’s always out working with people, seeing what is going on, using his people skills to make things happen.”
Conetoe (pronounced “koh-nee-tah,” ) is a primarily African-American community 75 miles east of Raleigh that boasts little more than a post office, a town hall, and a small discount store.
Joyner grew up nearby, on the outskirts of Greenville, where his parents were sharecroppers. He longed to escape the rural life, and did so by joining the U.S. Army and later the National Guard. He returned to the area to study divinity at Shaw University, and went on to serve as a community chaplain at Nash Health Care for more than 20 years, a job he still holds.
He preached at several area churches over the years, and became pastor at Conetoe at the request of the former pastor, a mentor to Joyner who was in his 90s at the time and has since died.
The area’s health issues are well documented. Rural Edgecombe County has some of the state’s highest rates of obesity, diabetes and alcoholism. But seeing it firsthand spurred Joyner to action.
“We were experiencing a lot of death, and death that could be prevented with proper nutrition and health education,” he says.
He involved the youth because he saw an opportunity to educate them as well as steer them toward healthier lifestyles. Plus, he says, it was easier to change habits among the young, who then passed them on to their parents.
Joyner lets the students, who range in age from 4 to 16, lead wherever possible. A group of the older students chose to keep bees, for instance, and chose to sell purple-skinned potatoes after doing some research on how easily they grow and the prices they fetch.
“Given the opportunity, they think a lot differently than we do,” he says. “It’s important that we stop thinking for them.”
Teaching a lost art
In a small modular office building that is the Conetoe Family Life Center, a back room is filled with their ideas written out on huge notepads – plans for garden plots, information on stores that may sell their products, diagrams of how bees produce honey.
He has used his own connections to help spread the effort to area churches and other areas. In one unique collaboration, the Conetoe students are trading vegetables for fresh fish from the Outer Banks.
The students start their days at summer camp running and doing pushups before getting to work in the garden or on school work or social skills.
“It’s good, hard work,” he says. “With 60 kids on this campus, you have a lot of energy to get things done.”
The operation runs on volunteers, and most of the land for the farms was either given to them or sold at steep discounts by local landowners.
While he disliked farming as a child, Joyner has the requisite knowledge. At his own home growing up, they had a backyard vegetable garden along with hogs, chickens and cows – all of which had to be tended before the day’s actual work began.
“It used to be in the African-American community, you knew what to grow when and how to do it,” he says. “We ran away from the farm, and that stuff our parents didn’t have to even think about became a lost art to our children.”
The students also learn a host of real-life skills, from measuring the distance between plants to promoting their products.
On the weekends, families can harvest all the food they want as long as the children are preparing the food. Joyner notes that with an average household income of just over $20,000, the savings on food can be significant.
“They feel really good when they take something home to their parents,” he says of the students. “They get to see how it feels to be givers rather than takers.”
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The Rev. Richard E. Joyner
Born: September 1953, Tarboro
Career: Pastor, Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church; lead chaplain and community liaison, Nash Health Care; founder and director, Conetoe Family Life Center
Awards: Purpose Prize, Encore.org, 2014
Education: Studied divinity at Shaw University
Fun Fact: Joyner says the children he works with liked the idea of producing honey because the bees would also help pollinate their crops. A local beekeeper trained the students and there are now 12 certified beekeepers among them. The bees produce 5,000 gallons of honey a year, though Joyner still keeps his distance. “I don’t like bees,” he says.