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.
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.
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.
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.