Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Local organizations partner on community learning farm to combat food desert in Southside

A community learning farm is being developed on 1.5 acres of land on the local food bank’s future expanded 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 combat issues of access to affordable and nutritious fresh foods, a partnership of local entities will plan, build and implement a community farm.

The Southside neighborhood downtown is one of eight food deserts, with limited access to fresh produce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A community learning farm will be built at 1000 Greenfield St., the future site of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s expanded facility.

READ MORE: Special Series: An in-depth look at Wilmington’s food deserts

The food bank will provide the land at no cost and the volunteer-run garden will offer opportunities for nearby residents to learn how to grow, harvest and even sell their own produce. The New Hanover County Extension Office and local nonprofit Feast Down East (FDE) will work hand-in-hand to complement each other’s resources 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 from our experiences running the mobile market that the community is particularly impacted by the lack of access to fresh food,” FDE executive director Cara Stretch said.

The local branch of the food bank, currently housed at 1314 Marstellar Dr. since 1990, serves Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender counties. Roughly 94,000 people, including around 19,000 children, face hunger in its service area, and 25,000 seniors live at or below the poverty level.

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

RELATED: Wilmington doles out more coronavirus relief money. This time, it’s to fight food insecurity

FDE was awarded a $200,000 grant for the planning phase of the farm in August 2020 by the newly established Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovation Production, a branch of the USDA.

Following news of the funds, Jennifer Biringer joined FDE as the community learning farm project manager. Biringer spent nearly six months searching for the right location before selecting the food bank site.

FDE will use roughly 1.5 acres of the food bank’s land for a community learning farm. The food bank originally included a garden in its new site plans and will assist heavily with recruiting volunteers for its upkeep.

FDE participated in the policy planning of Wilmington’s new land development code, enacted in August to ensure a community learning farm, eventually leading to gardening and farming for commercial purposes, was a possibility.

When FDE had to downsize and restructure its staff due to funding shortages last month, the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension stepped in to take over the planning and fulfilling the requirements of the grant by June 2022. The extension office partners with N.C. State University and has access to agriscience experts and educators.

“Feast Down East underwent a strategic planning process to enable them to focus on core activities, which is supporting small- to medium-sized farmers in getting their products to market, so they have sound livelihoods,” Biringer said. “The learning farm is very related, but it’s more in the bailiwick of the cooperative extension, more to the core of their mission teaching about agriculture and gardening.”

Extension staff, including director Lloyd Singleton and agent Matt Collogan, who also serves as the county’s water and soil district supervisor, have been consulting since its inception, along with a small planning team.

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

FDE will remain the fiscal partner, since it’s a nonprofit, and continue to contribute its resources.

“When you run a grant through a university, they take an astronomical amount of overhead, something like 40%,” Singleton said. “We don’t need that. We need that money to go to build our facility right here. It’s easier to partner with another organization to be a fiscal partner and we do the leg work.”

Singleton said additional experts, including N.C. State colleagues will be looped into the process once a plan is nailed down and he knows what structures are needed and at what price point. This will be essential for submitting the implementation grant application, which would fund the actual construction of the garden.

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

The goal is to complete the planning phase before the new deadline, so FDE can apply for the implementation grant and continue momentum. If awarded, the grant can be valued up to $300,000. Once funding is secured, the plan is to break ground on the farm by winter 2022 or spring 2023.

The current planning team is in the process of putting together an inclusive advisory council to bring more than 30 interested organizations to the table. The group will meet in-person for the first time Jan. 21 to discuss how to move forward.

“There will be a strong and significant representation,” Biringer said. “It overlaps so many different efforts.”

Right now, community engagement from the Southside neighborhood is the most valuable step and has been at the forefront of planning.

“What’s very important for us is to find out what the community wants in the way of a community learning farm,” Singleton said. “I may want them to learn to grow tomatoes hydroponically, but if that doesn’t interest them there’s no point.”

Singleton said he wants residents to learn to grow produce to also earn additional income.

“I’d love it to be where some of the residents actually have a small farm in their background or a hydroponic lettuce tower where they’re cutting fresh lettuce and delivering it to a local restaurant,” he detailed.

Southside resident Nathaniel Mitchell, FDE’s community advocate, is spearheading the community engagement aspect. By working closely with FDE’s mobile market, as well as being a neighbor, he interacts with residents daily.

“I’ve gotten really broad feedback,” Mitchell said. “But people are definitely excited about the fresh aspect and being able to be a part of what we grow there and being able to reap the rewards of their work.”

Having lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, Mitchell is ensuring inclusion remains integral to the planning process, especially since the area lost its only grocery store, Everybody’s, in a fire in 2018. The food bank and community garden will be located on the same lot as the former Village Plaza, which housed the grocery store. 

‘Because of the socioeconomics of the area, it’s kind of a low-resource neighborhood,” Singleton said.

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

“By being a part of Feast Down East I found out what a food desert was and what that entailed,” Mitchell said. “Outside, feeling the pressures of living in a food desert, I had no idea I was going through that.”

Once the community provides feedback, the advisory group can begin putting pen to paper and discussing concrete plans for design and construction. FDE also has a goal to include a brick-and-mortar market to sell for produce generated by the garden.

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

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