Seeds of Change/Sprouts of Hope

When Chad Roberts lost his job two years ago, he never dreamed he’d be unemployed this long. He was a machinist, forklift operator, and could drive just about anything. But living in Ashe County, North Carolina where unemployment has hovered between 12%- 15% and three major manufacturers have been shuttered, Chad’s job opportunities were few and far between. Nobody called him back on his job applications, and nobody seemed to be hiring.

Chad started to get depressed, had trouble sleeping, and began to pack on the pounds, despite the fact his family was existing on food stamps and meals from the food pantry. Then this spring, he filled out a survey at the pantry about gardening and the next thing he knew, Travis Birdsell and Pastor Rob Brooks of Outgrow Hunger were offering to come over, till his land out back, and help him start a garden.

And boy howdy, is Chad growing things now! His tomatoes are reaching up the twisted steel poles to the sun, his cabbages, melons and squash are swelling into ripeness, and his greens are so abundant, he is giving them away (to the food pantry). With a used freezer donated by Outgrow Hunger, he and his wife Angela (who is diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has trouble walking) and their two children plan to process and freeze a lot of the food to eat through the winter, and donate the rest to other needy families in the community.

Already, Chad’s attitude has changed, he’s got some pride back, his whole family is eating healthier food, and the garden gets him outside moving and sweating every day, with his excited kids beside him. And that’s happening on 43 family gardens all across Ashe County.

Travis Birdsell taking gardens with Christy & Lowell Penley.

OutGrow Hunger is a movement sponsored by the churches of Ashe County that has partnered with Heifer in the Seeds of Change program in Appalachia– and believe me, these folks are on fire! This year, they aim to source Ashe County food pantries with 90,000 pounds of fresh produce from regional gardeners (“A Community of 100 Gardeners”) as well as from commercial growers. So instead of just getting 20 boxes of mac & cheese, people living on food assistance will also get fresh squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons. Travis, a local deacon and landscape horticulturist, routinely travels to new gardening families to share his knowledge and experience, and Rob, a UMC pastor and director of Ashe Outreach Ministries, oversees a food pantry that provides food to about 800 people a month, a community kitchen that feeds 65 folks daily, a meals-on-wheels program, and backpack buddies for 300 local school children. And this is just their FIRST year of operation!

Outgrow Hunger also has plans to put in a greenhouse so they can start seedlings for all their gardeners; plant orchards in every elementary school in Ashe county so every child will be able to pick a piece of fruit to eat; put in educational gardens on donated land so low-income people can learn to garden more effectively (Chad could teach this course!) and use money from Heifer to buy a flash freezer so they can make those pounds of produce into healthy soups & stews for the pantry.

Austin Penley, a good young gardener of Ashe County.

Outgrow Hunger is just one of the programs that Heifer is aligned with in Appalachia, but it’s among the most impressive – mostly due to the energy, commitment and non-stop vision of Travis and Rob, and Heifer’s own spark-plug, Jeffrey Scott. It’s a perfect example of the “Collective Impact” model that Heifer is using to bring 60 leaders in the community to the table to address the critical challenge of how to improve nutrition and economic growth in these traditional farming regions that have fallen on hard, hungry times. That requires the skills of many groups: nonprofits and advocacy, schools and universities, business people, corporations, health organizations, government and churches, working together to change things.

Travis & Jeffrey delivering a freezer: some days require brain power, some just plain brawn.

But what it’s all about in the end is seeing Chelsea Roberts, pulling me over excitedly to offer a snow pea, picked fresh off the vine. It is divine. She helped grow it, and she loves the taste of it.

“You cain’t get no fresher than that!” she says proudly. I gotta agree.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “Seeds of Change/Sprouts of Hope

  1. Wow – sweet! In our own back yard! 🙂

  2. Martha Radatz

    This is a fabulous post, Betty. Last month we had a group of Heifer volunteers here at our house for breakfast and a viewing of Heifer’s “Seeds of Change” DVD. Then we toured a local CSA farm and “picked our own”. I gave everyone your site address and told them you’d be focusing on US programs this month—-hopefully they are all ready this!
    PS I’m forwarding this to my son, who is lives in No Carolina and has been unemployed for over a year. Hard times!

    • So sorry to hear your son’s having a hard time finding a job in NC, but he is sure not alone. That was the most depressing thing about being in beautiful Appalachia. SO many jobs have disappeared from small manufacturing places .. and nothing has come in to fill them. I really hope the terrific community power behind Seeds of Change can make some positive things happen economically in these towns. They could really use the boost !!!

  3. Martha Radatz

    Oops, I meant “all READING this!”

  4. Gail McBride

    I love this story on so many levels! It is a story about dignity, motivation, respect, health, and love.

    • Thanks, Gail– I really fell in love with Appalachia. It’s so beautiful and so … American. Hard to see poverty like that in our affluent country, though.

  5. Chad sounds like a hard-working guy, who’s growing amazing produce! Goodness, the cabbage is HUGE! Love to hear about the work Heifer is doing closer to home!
    I’m stil cheering for you, Betty. Hope you win the award!

  6. Besides the flash freezer Betty. How about some solar dehydrators ? Just a thought …

  7. That’s a great idea, Sybil and I’m passing it right along to Jeffrey. (although I didn’t see the sun more than 3 minutes the week I was there … tee hee!) You are a THINKER, girl!!

  8. Betty, I’m running out of ways to say how amazing you are and how much I look forward to these posts. These gardens are important for so many reasons, including elevating the disgustingly low standard of food most impoverished people sink to. We make non-nourishing food plentiful and cheap in this country, while the most nourishing food is the most expensive. Hurray for these gardens!

    • Oh, Renee — I totally agree! And look at Travis’s comment below — how amazingly great is it that Chad got a new job!! I believe that when you give people an opportunity to work with dignity, to achieve and to be productive, they will amaze you with what they can accomplish, and clearly Chad is one of those people. His garden was AMAZING — and if we could just promote that in areas that already have the underpinnings of a good local food movement — I really believe we could change the way people eat and how they feel. So happy you are reading !!!

  9. After reading this post, I am beaming with pride for what Chad & Angela have accomplished in this short period of time. They are hard working Americans just trying to get by in hard times, and I am proud to call them my friends. I am also very happy to inform that last week Chad started a new job and lost 6 lbs in one week. We hope that Chad & Angela become a beacon of light for others experiencing similar situations as we continue to plant seeds of hope.

  10. Travis — this is the BEST news I’ve gotten all week!! So happy to hear that Chad got a new job (and lost 6 pounds in a week) … I know how hard he & Angela have worked (just look at the garden, and you can see that without a doubt!) But I have to say, YOU have had such a big hand in their turnaround, and I was enormously touched by your tremendous commitment and fervor for helping your neighbors in Ashe County (and I totally loved your mom, Jane, too!) — What a wonderful community you have there… I know good things will continue to happen and I just can’t wait to write about THAT too!!

  11. Anonymous

    SO excited about this! In my own backyard too….I was in a meeting today where discussion was made regarding how food production is taking a huge circle back to local venues. This is one of the best stories I’ve heard in months. Too bad it doesn’t make the nightly newscast. Americans could stand to hear some GOOD news for once… I’m honored to know Travis and Rob personally and am touched by their impact on the community!

    • Travis and Rob were a HUGE inspiration to me … I just was so impressed by their tireless work, cheerful dispositions, personal touch with each family we visited, and fantastic organizational chops! With folks like these in Ashe County, I have the highest of hopes for the local food movement there, and its impact on the health, nutrition and economy of the area. I wish they would be on national TV, too… it’s just such a good story!!

  12. Pingback: Gleaning for the Greater Good « Daring to Live in Love!

  13. This is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve read in a long time. Outgrow Hunger is a brilliant idea.

  14. Dearest Rosie — and the BEST part is, Chad got a job last week!! I was so happy to hear that, and feel like it’s at least in part attributable to his wonderful gardening and feeling of competence in growing things. I am SO happy for that family!!!

  15. Reading your blog always feeds my soul. I am so grateful to you for sharing all of this with us.

  16. Anonymous

    Chad is not working at this time chad worked a copple of days and at this time they said at there is no work for him to do. So he is back with no job at this time but he is still looking for work. Pray for our family he needs a job, he loves to work. Our bills are way behind. Please pray for us for chad a job and for me (angela his wife) to get her disablity. We enjoyed having you betty at our garden. And thank you everyone for your wonderful commets, and thank you travis for the seeds and all your wonderful help that you and your mother jane has done for us.THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

  17. Beth Sorrell

    I was lucky to get a tour from Travis’s mom, Jane, and I’m so impressed and inspired by this great work. If you haven’t already, you should submit this story to the Ashe Mountain Times or Jefferson Post so that others may be inspired.

    • I totally will do that Beth –and I’m so glad that you loved Jane as much as I did — as well as Travis! Those folks doing the day-to-day work in the field just blow my mind! I am SO SO happy that Heifer is aligned with them and I feel like there is such a burgeoning movement of positive energy around local food, organic farming and getting back to our food roots there … i LOVED it!!!

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