CTTT Technical Assistance Spotlight: Norman UMC and Richmond Fresh

RAFI’s Come to the Table program has been providing mini-grants to rural United Methodist Churches throughout North Carolina who have been responding to the increased hunger in their communities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These mini-grants are made possible through the support of The Duke Endowment and provide funding to churches who are purchasing food from local growers or local restaurants to distribute in their community.

Come to the Table is uniquely situated to connect faith communities with farmers and farmers markets in their communities. Please contact Michelle Osborne ([email protected]) for more information.

Come to the Table strives to empower communities to find creative solutions to food access that use the resources of the local community. We have seen over and over the ways that collaboration boosts impact, and the Richmond Fresh project is a great example of this. Through this project, we see the ways that local churches can use their resources in creative ways to boost access to fresh and local food in their communities.

We had a conversation with one grantee, Dave Clark of Norman UMC and God’s Garden to discuss their food ministry and the impact of the grant. We also spoke with Davon Goodwin of the Sandhills AgInnovation Center, who partnered with them on this project.

Interview with David Clark of Norman UMC and God’s Garden

The mission of God’s Garden is to reach hearts, minds, and bodies by sharing the harvest, supporting local farmers, and educating the community about sustainable farming practices.

How did your food program begin? What was it a response to?

God’s Garden started about 12 years ago with the economic downturn. Our church was looking for a way to help the community, and my father came up with the idea of growing a garden and sharing the food and that’s how it all got started.

We’ve helped Sandhills Ag Innovation Center out with projects previously. We both have very similar goals to serve the community, help improve the economic situation for folks in the area, provide healthy food, and help farmers.”

What would you say to a church that is concerned that buying from local farmers might be more expensive than buying from a large retailer?

Fresh food is almost always healthier and buying locally supports your local economy. Supporting the economy locally makes sure that money gets in the hands of your neighbors, which helps their health and improves their economic standing. Buying from a big box store that’s produced their food ten states away doesn’t help the economy or your farming neighbors.

What is your relationship with those in the community that you serve?

I know the person in Norman who works at the convenience store in town who is also the mayor and she knows everyone in town so she was great help distributing the food in that area. Paige Burns Clark, my wife, works for Cooperative Extension, and she identified other communities in Richmond County where there was a lot of food insecurity.

The majority of our produce comes from local farmers. The grant we received from RAFI-USA went entirely toward purchasing fresh produce from local farmers. God’s Garden already had relationships with farmers and we own some specialized equipment — bean and pea picking harvesting machines — and we share them with other farmers as well. We have worked with NC Cooperative Extension to put on field trials and demonstrations of varieties and crops that can be grown, and we also use the NC Cooperative Extension for our own purposes at God’s Garden to grow better crops.”

How has this Come to the Table mini-grant helped to support your work?

We’re very grateful to RAFI-USA for their contribution. We pooled our grant money together with Sandhills to be able to pull off this program really quickly. Because Davon has the infrastructure to store produce in coolers and freezers and a packing line to pack the produce and refrigerator trailers to deliver in, it’s been a great partnership.

Interview with Davon Goodwin of Sandhills AgInnovation Center

What can you tell us about Sandhills AgInnovation Center and your position?

I am the manager of the Sandhills AgInnovation Center, which is a food hub in Ellerbe, North Carolina. We help farmers gain access to new markets and help them get  equipment that they may need. We really consider ourselves to be a farmer resource. We help with cold storage, processing, equipment, and  finding sustainable markets. We’re here to sustain our farmers in the community and help them gain access to markets and resources.

What has it been like partnering with a church? Is this something you do often or a new partnership?

I’ve worked with other non-profits before, but this is the first time we’ve partnered with a faith-based organization. To be honest with you, it’s been a match made in heaven. Our missions both align, we’re big on giving our community access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and we’re really big on making sure people have access to food, and especially access to healthy food. Two like-minded organizations have come together to fulfill the same mission.

Were there any particular gifts and/or challenges that arose from partnering with a church?

The infrastructure of how a church is set up works well with us. The fact that faith is involved is a big deal. Even with our project, we’re walking on faith. Farmers are just like people in the church, they walk on faith. You don’t know what will happen from day to day. It was amazing. It almost brings tears to my eyes because of the level of support we got. At first I knew we would get some support, but the amount of support every week was amazing — people were calling to see how they could get involved, and it helped that David knew stakeholders and was so involved in the community.

What were the logistics of how the project worked?

We ran it for 13 weeks and we did 520 food boxes. It was just amazing. We knew when COVID-19 first started that our community was going to be impacted worse off than others because we already deal with food insecurity, and then you put a pandemic on top of that and it exposes the weakness in our systems. It was truly community supporting community. The only thing that was disheartening was that people needed more boxes. One thing we were striving for was to put a new vegetable in the box every week so that our recipients could get access to vegetables they’re not used to seeing. People would say, “I’ve never seen this before,” “I’ve never had that before,” or “I found a new recipe with that vegetable in the box.”

What would you say to a church that is concerned that buying from local farmers might be more expensive than buying from a large retailer?

Good food should be expensive. We have bought into a cheap food policy in America,  and it’s literally killing us. So the first thing I would say to a church is, you should be wanting to support the members of your community no matter how much it costs because that farmer is an active member of the community, so supporting them is keeping that same dollar in your community, and that dollar is staying right here a couple different times before it leaves the community. So, yes, getting canned food or food with high starch is easy and accessible and it lasts long, but that’s why building these partnerships is so important. We get our food on Tuesday and get the food out by Wednesday. So to a church, you need to find a partnership. These boxes are expensive, but we are never going to tell a farmer to lessen his price to feed his community because that’s not fair on either side of the table. So we’re going to have an equitable system because that farmer needs to be paid the full value for his food. Eating healthy food is the first line of defense to make your community more healthy and resilient. My whole thing for churches is we’re all walking out on faith. I know the budget is tight, but it is amazing what people can do when they come together.

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