Local organizations partner with community learning farm to tackle food desert in Southside

A community learning farm is being developed on 1.5 acres of land in the future expanded local food bank facility at 1000 Greenfield Street. (Port City Daily / Alexandria Williams)

WILMINGTON – More than 16% of residents, including 20% ​​of children, are considered food insecure in New Hanover County. To help tackle issues of access to affordable and nutritious fresh food, a partnership of local entities will plan, build and implement a community farm.

The downtown Southside neighborhood is one of the Eight Food Deserts, with limited access to fresh produce, according to the US Department of Agriculture. A community learning farm will be built at 1000 Greenfield St., the future site of the expanded food bank facilities in central and eastern North Carolina.

READ MORE: Special Series: An In-Depth Look at Wilmington’s Food Desserts

The food bank will provide the land for free, and the volunteer-run garden will provide local residents with an opportunity to learn how to grow, harvest and even sell their own produce. The New Hanover County Extension Office and the local Feast Down East (FDE) association will work hand in hand to complement each other and implement a community-centered approach to creating an urban garden.

“We were particularly interested in the Southside of Wilmington because we know from data and our experiences in managing the mobile market that the community is particularly affected by the lack of access to fresh food,” said the manager. EDF Executive Cara Stretch.

The local branch of the food bank, currently located at 1314 Marstellar Dr. since 1990, serves Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender counties. Around 94,000 people, including around 19,000 children, suffer from hunger in its service area, and 25,000 elderly people live at or below the poverty line.

In July 2020, the Food Bank purchased a 5 acre parcel of Greenfield Street from Cameron Management Inc. for its future 35,000 square foot facility. The 250% increase in space will allow an additional 3.5 million pounds of food, a 47% increase in overall distribution throughout the region.

RELATED: Wilmington is distributing more coronavirus relief money. This time it’s to fight against food insecurity

The FDE received a grant of $ 200,000 for the planning phase of the farm in August 2020 by the new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, a branch of the USDA.

Following the announcement of the funds, Jennifer Biringer joined FDE as the Community Learning Farm Project Manager. Biringer spent nearly six months researching the right location before selecting the food bank site.

FDE will use approximately 1.5 acres of land from the food bank for a community learning farm. The food bank initially included a garden in its new site plans and will greatly assist in recruiting volunteers for its maintenance.

FDE was involved in the political planning of Wilmington’s new land use code, promulgated in August to ensure that a community learning farm, eventually leading to gardening and farming for commercial purposes, is a possibility.

When FDE had to downsize and restructure staff due to a lack of funding last month, the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension stepped in to take over planning and meeting grant requirements by June 2022. The extension office partners with NC State University and has access to agroscience experts and educators.

“Feast Down East has undergone a strategic planning process to allow them to focus on their core businesses, which help small and medium-sized farmers bring their products to market, so that they have strong livelihoods,” said said Biringer. “The learning farm is closely linked, but it is more in the bailiwick of the cooperative extension, more at the heart of their mission of teaching agriculture and gardening.”

Extension staff, including Director Lloyd Singleton and Officer Matt Collogan, who also serves as the County Water and Soil District Supervisor, have consulted since its inception, along with a small planning team.

“It will continue to be that kind of trifecta between the food bank, Feast Down East and the cooperative extension,” Biringer said.

The FDE will remain the fiscal partner, since it is a non-profit association, and will continue to provide its resources.

“When you give a grant to a university, it takes an astronomical amount of overhead, around 40%,” Singleton said. “We don’t need that. We need this money to build our facility right here. It’s easier to partner with another organization to be a tax partner and we do the work on the ground.

Singleton said additional experts, including colleagues from the state of North Carolina, will be brought into the process once a plan is defined and he knows what structures are needed and at what cost. This will be essential for submitting the application for the Implementation Grant, which would finance the actual construction of the garden.

The USDA announced in May the availability of an additional $ 4 million in grants to support the development of urban agriculture and innovative production projects – the same type of grant that the EDF was awarded in 2020. The deadline application deadline is July 30, 2022.

The aim is to complete the planning phase before the new deadline, so that FDE can apply for the implementation grant and build on its momentum. If awarded, the grant can reach up to $ 300,000. Once funding is secured, the plan is to start working on the farm by winter 2022 or spring 2023.

The current planning team is in the process of establishing an inclusive advisory board to bring more than 30 interested organizations to the table. The group will meet in person for the first time on January 21 to discuss how to move forward.

“There will be strong and meaningful representation,” Biringer said. “It straddles so many different efforts. “

Southside community engagement is the most valuable step and has been at the forefront of planning today.

“What’s really important to us is finding out what the community wants when it comes to a community learning farm,” Singleton said. “Maybe I want them to learn how to hydroponically grow tomatoes, but if they’re not interested, it’s no use. “

Singleton said he wanted residents to learn how to grow crops so they could earn extra income as well.

“I wish it was where some of the residents actually have a small farm in their background or a hydroponic lettuce tower where they cut some fresh lettuce and deliver it to a local restaurant,” he said. detailed.

Southside resident Nathaniel Mitchell, Community Advocate for FDE, spearheads the community engagement aspect. By working closely with FDE’s mobile market, in addition to being a neighbor, he interacts with residents on a daily basis.

“I received very broad comments,” Mitchell said. “But people are really excited about the fresh look and being able to be a part of what we grow there and be able to reap the rewards for their labor.”

Having lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, Mitchell ensures that inclusion remains an integral part of the planning process, especially since the neighborhood lost its only grocery store, Everybody’s, in a fire in 2018. The Food Bank and the community garden will be located on the same lot as the old Village Plaza, which housed the grocery store.

“Due to the socio-economy of the area, it’s kind of a low-resource neighborhood,” Singleton said.

Mitchell said it was especially difficult for the elderly or those without a vehicle to get around and access fresh food. The nearest grocery store is now over a mile away.

“Being a part of Feast Down East I discovered what a food desert is and what it entails,” Mitchell said. “Outdoors, feeling the pressures of living in a food desert, I had no idea I was going through this. “

Once the community has provided feedback, the advisory group can begin to pick up the pen and discuss concrete plans for the design and construction. FDE also aims to include a brick and mortar market to sell the products generated by the garden.

The new 35,000 square foot food bank will continue to support the current 125 partner agencies, distribute food in five counties and house a commercial kitchen for meal preparation and education. It is slated to open by November 2022. A $ 1 million donation from nCinco in September will help fund the new facility, distributing the money over a five-year period.

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