Ashe County Ministries: Looking For Ways to “Outgrow Hunger” in Western North Carolina

The Appalachian mountains of Ashe County are still covered in snow this time of year, but community leaders, churches, and farmers have already met to plan for the 2012 growing and harvesting seasons. This will be the pilot year of an effort called Outgrow Hunger, which aims to source Ashe County food pantries with 90,000 pounds per year of fresh produce from regional gardeners and commercial growers.  The effort is spearheaded by Travis Birsdsell, a local deacon and landscapehorticulturalist, and Rob Brooks, a UMC pastor and the director of Ashe Outreach Ministries, which runs a food pantry, a community kitchen, a meals-on-wheels program, and backpack buddies for local school children.

Local Food a “Necessity”, Not a Luxury

Supplying food pantries with more local food is not just about increasing nutrition and connecting with regional producers; it’s becoming a necessity in order for food pantries to survive. Rob says that while food pantry demand has increased 53% nationally, government food supply to these programs has been cut by two-thirds.

In Ashe County, this shift is exacerbated by high unemployment and poverty rates.  In the past decade, three major manufacturing facilities have closed, taking 2,500 jobs and leaving residents either unemployed or underemployed. Seventy percent of children receive reduced lunch at school, and healthy meals and exercise are so irregular that, like many places in North Carolina, about a third of young children are overweight or obese.

Ashe Outreach Ministries is one of several emergency food relief agencies in the county that provide support and resources to families, and in the past few years, Ashe Outreach has incorporated local food production into its ministry, from running a demonstration garden called the “Pastors’ Backporch”  to taking donations of sweet potatoes from local growers. Ashe Outreach already receives about 40,00 pounds of produce a year, and 15,000 of this is regionally produced and delivered by Second Harvest. Outgrow Hunger builds upon the lessons and success of these existing initiatives, and despite the challenges of the area, Rob and Travis have faith that with the right partnerships, they will start to transform how Ashe County feeds itself.

Tapping into the County’s Resources

Rob puts it simply: “We want to be able to tap into the best resources in Ashe County, and that’s growing food. We have good land, food people, and good growers.” He calculates that if 50 large-scale growers were to grow slightly more of their crop and tithe 2 produce pallets as a tax-deductible donation to Outgrow Hunger, the program would receive 50,000 pounds of produce per year. Having worked for years in agriculture, Travis knows that farmers rarely have the time or resources for additional work that doesn’t generate income, so he and Rob are developing a volunteer and distribution system that would allow them to pick up produce and drop it off to food pantries or bring it to the Ashe Outreach kitchen for processing.

While commercial growers provide the majority of produce in this model, Outgrow Hunger also hopes to increase backyard and community food production. Travis will work with local gardeners to plant an extra row for the hungry and when necessary, will help them plan a garden that can feed their family and produce an additional 10% for donation back to Outgrow Hunger. Faith groups will hopefully join Travis in helping set up educational garden sites and providing materials to low-income families interested in growing food. As one member of the planning group notes, these efforts feed into the independent spirit of Ashe County: “We have that Appalachian pride, and we want to be [self-sufficient] and feed ourselves”.

Self-suffiency looks different in Ashe County than it does in a more urban setting. With the exception of a few demonstration gardens located at Ashe Outreach Ministries or a church, Outgrow Hunger is not advocating community gardens. It’s impossible to find a centrally located place that families would access regularly without having to spend gas money or coordinate transportation. Instead, Travis and volunteers will go to families’ backyards, help set up gardens, and require participants to make only occasional trips for workshops on harvesting, cooking, and processing. Instead of buying starters from elsewhere, Outgrow Hunger is partnering with the high school greenhouse and building its own greenhouse to raise starters for transplant in backyard gardens.

Extending the Shelf Life of Local Produce: Freezing for the Winter

If Outgrow Hunger receives donations from farmers and gardeners, where will all the produce go? Some of it will supply Ashe Outreach Community Meals and go directly to recipients. However, most food pantries in Ashe County lack the storage space or numbers of weekly recipients to accommodate Outgrow Hunger’s anticipated produce volume. Rob’s solution is to store produce in a donated refrigerated truck near the Ashe Outreach kitchen, and for volunteer teams to make soups and stews from the produce and other donated ingredients, including local venison from Hunters for the Hungry. Volunteer teams will freeze the product in quart-sealed bags that food pantry recipients can take home and store in their own freezers.

At the Outgrow Hunger meeting in early February, it was clear that as much as people plan, organize, and and pray, part of the program’s strength will be in its ability to deal with surprises. Apple trees have started budding because of the warm winter, but a cold snowy front just moved in. Rob says that they had hoped to invite apple growers to join the project, but growers might have a low yield this year: “You can’t quantify agriculture, so the best thing we can do is develop a system that will handle whatever comes.”  Travis notes that patience will also be important. “It might take a few years,” he says, “but I’m very optimistic about this. […] I have a lot of hope that we can come together as a community and start feeding ourselves.”

You can read an earlier profile of Ashe Outreach Ministries in our 2008 guidebook.

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