Strong communities need to be resilient to changes. Whether it be sudden disruptions from natural disasters or economic downturns or gradual shifts in community needs and resources, a community needs to leverage the people, organizations, and assets they have to make sure all are supported and have opportunities to succeed.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 created instant disruptions in communities across the country. Notably, there was a spike in food insecurity. According to Feeding America, 1 in 7 Americans and 1 in 5 children (11 million children) experienced food insecurity during 2020. And there were significant racial disparities when it came to which households experience food insecurity: 1 in 5 Black households versus 1 in 8 white households. Senior citizens also have a greater likelihood of experiencing food insecurity; nearly 1 in 6 seniors are food insecure. Despite the obstacles, resilient communities are those that build partnerships with others who share their goals and passions. Resilient communities recognize that while we might not have everything individually, together we have a lot.
A great example of this kind of impactful community collaboration is the individual and collective work of Steve Moore, a farmer in Harnett County, NC, and Veronica Watson, a Master Gardener and parishioner at McQueen Chapel UMC in Lee County, NC.
Starting a Farm in 2020 – Steve Moore
Steve Moore grew up on his family’s farm in Beaufort County, NC. After graduating from North Carolina A&T he moved to Virginia to start a 40-year-long career as a nuclear test engineer. After moving back to North Carolina in 2019 he decided to take over his nephew’s farm in Harnett County. Steve started his first spring garden of S and D Farm Fresh Produce and Lawn Services in February 2020. He had a clear idea of how much production and how many customers sales at farmers markets he needed to do well in that first year. But COVID-19 completely changed his plans.
“When we started attending farmers markets in the spring of 2020 there was a very limited customer base. People were staying at home. It certainly impacted our sales and our produce was spoiling if we couldn’t sell it right away.” And because Steve only began farming in 2020, he was not eligible for federal assistance programs like PPP and CFAP designed to help farmers through this market disruption.
Steve started donating the food that he couldn’t sell right away. But the real solution was to have a way to store the food for longer periods of time until he could find other places to sell his produce. With the support of a RAFI-USA COVID-19 Expense Reimbursement grant, Steve retrofitted a space with a CoolBot to create on-farm cold storage. This gave Steve more flexibility to harvest, store, and sell his produce to different markets and customers during an unpredictable time.
Gardening and Food Ministry During COVID-19 – Veronica Watson
While 2020 meant Steve had a surplus of produce and a need for more customers, Veronica Watson was connecting a larger number of food-insecure community members to sufficient, accessible food sources. Veronica has been a parishioner at McQueens Chapel UMC all her life. She retired from the Army with 35 years of service In 2013, she became more involved with growing food when the church received funding to start an organic community garden for the three churches in the Sanford Circuit. Veronica continues to be the Garden Coordinator for three gardens. She helps maintain the garden at McQueens Chapel (which is also the garden for the Lee County Master Gardeners Program) and coordinates the distribution of food boxes to senior citizens, disabled veterans, and other marginalized food insecure community members in a four-county region. The food boxes contain an assortment of organic grown produce from the garden and items from other local vendors.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, McQueens Chapel UMC applied for RAFI-USA Come to the Table funding to buy additional food from farmers like Howard Allen, a RAFI-USA 2019 Agricultural Reinvestment Grant recipient. “We bought from local vendors and were able to provide 45 food boxes, each containing 35 lbs of food.” Veronica said the funding was especially important because it provided community members with a greater variety as well as healthier food options than the food boxes they received through a USDA program. And with additional support from Resourceful Communities, McQueens Chapel was able to purchase a CoolBot refrigerated trailer, improving their ability to store and distribute food across Moore, Lee, Cumberland, and Harnett counties.
Working Collectively towards Food Security
In 2021, both Steve and Veronica continue to build upon their successes and adaptations last year. After attending the Sandhills Farmers & Heritage Market, one of the farmers markets Steve sells at, Veronica contacted Steve about purchasing produce from him this fall for continued food distributions. Veronica is also excited about adding hot food options as part of their distribution. Likewise, Steve is excited to partner with McQueen Chapel. “I’m not trying to get rich off of farming — I want to support my community. Whatever they want I can plant for them.”
Looking ahead, Steve is looking to grow his farm and feed the community. He currently sells at the Carolina Lakes and Sandhills Farmers & Heritage Market of Spring Lake. Through another RAFI-USA program, Fresh Bucks, Steve is able to match all EBT purchases from SNAP customers at the Sandhills Farmers and Heritage Market of Spring Lake. Market Manager, Ammie Jenkins, affirms that “Steve is definitely a positive presence at the market. Because we’re able to accept and match SNAP we have a number of repeat SNAP customers who are always the first to come when the market opens.” Steve has seen the farmers market and SNAP customer base grow over the last year and says the Spring Lake reminds him of the farmers markets he attended growing up.
For Veronica, she hopes to see their food ministry expand and incorporate more youth in the future so “if the time comes, they know how to grow their own food.” In the meantime she wants people to know, “we’re still here to provide as much food as we can for the people who are underserved. Whatever support we receive we’re going to put to good use feeding our community. Faith-based communities always look out for their communities.”
You can learn more about S and D Farm Fresh Produce, Green Thumbs Victory Community Garden of McQueens Chapel, and the Sandhills Farmers & Heritage Market of Spring Lake at the following links: