Community gardens provide hope and sustenance in East Winston

by Jordan Green

Milton Kennedy and Donald Mebane meet Ms. Toni at the New Bethel Baptist Church Community Garden in East Winston.

Dr.Sissy Gamble was delegating tasks to volunteers who had shown up for a Saturday workday at the Goler Community Garden when Ella Boston appeared along the row of sunflowers that salutes the downtown Winston-Salem skyline.

“I had a stroke and an aneurism four years ago,” Boston told Gamble. “I walk every day. This is my therapy.” Then, gesturing towards the lush rows of tomatoes, eggplant and squash, she added, “This is a blessing.”

Boston, a 65-year-old resident of the Kimberly Park area, said she often comes to the garden to harvest fresh produce. This information pleased Gamble, although the doctor wanted to know roughly how many pounds Boston was taking so she could keep an accounting for the clinic’s grant-writing endeavors.

“These are life-savers,” Boston said. “I’m on social security. I have to stretch that and pray over it. My daughter got cut off of food stamps, so she’s eating out of it, too.”

Gamble and a handful of her fellow doctors at the Downtown Health Plaza, an outpatient clinic of Baptist Hospital, started the garden in the fall of 2009. During an office retreat at Graylyn International Conference Center earlier that year Gamble’s colleague, Dr. Carolyn Pedley, asked their supervisor if they could plant tomatoes in the field next door. He assented. The docs, medical students and volunteers regularly work in the garden. They harvest the vegetables — tomatoes, cucumber, okra, squash, bell peppers, carrots, radishes and peas — and the patients are invited to take them home. The garden also serves as a classroom, and the doctors believe that their patients’ intake of fresh produce increases commensurate with their exposure to the bounty offered up by the soil.

Gamble asked Boston what she likes to eat from the garden.

“The tomatoes are delicious,” Boston said. “I eat them as they are. I like green tomatoes, too. I take them home, slice them and fry them.”

Gamble said the people served by the clinic like fried green tomatoes, but encouraged Boston to stick with the healthier and more nutritious option of ripe, red tomatoes.

Community gardens have sprung up across economically depressed East Winston and other parts of the city over the past five years or so. They have been planted and tended by clergy and laity from neighborhood churches, educators and students, parents and children, and professionals looking for a change of pace from their day jobs. They receive support from the community development corporations that are organized to restore economic vitality to ailing patches of city, and benefit from technical expertise and free tilling from the Cooperative Extension Service of NC A&T University.

Corporate sponsors have also stepped up: Tools for the five gardens behind a business incubator operated by the SG Atkins Community Development Corp. on South Martin Luther King Drive were contributed by the Toyota Green Initiative. And Time Warner Cable donated an enclosed garden to the International Boys and Girls Club, which serves predominantly Hispanic children. Practically invisible in a part of the city chopped up by significant transportation infrastructure — US Highway 52, Smith Reynolds Airport and multiple lines of the Norfolk Southern rail line — the gardens flourish behind Boys and Girls clubs, in schoolyards, in vacant lots near boardedup houses and in tracts reclaimed from kudzu and woods. The harvest is typically distributed among food pantries, volunteers and people who are simply hungry, sometimes through formal arrangements and other times not so much.

Almost as a mantra, proponents of community gardens in East Winston and other low-resource neighborhoods talk about the higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity in African- American and Hispanic communities. They talk about the concept of “food deserts” — areas of the city underserved by grocery stores where residents pay higher fuel costs to travel across town for groceries and where they are priced out of many farmers markets. No less of an emphasis is placed on changing attitudes about food than addressing the material need.

“A lot of the health disparities in our community are diet related,” said Michael Suggs, executive director of Goler Community Development Corp. From the CDC’s office on North Martin Luther King Drive, Suggs can see Goler Community Garden across the street and to the left of Patterson Avenue. To the right, he can look at a 2.5-acre lot where the faith-based development agency is planning a multi-use residential and retail complex. To the east, wedged between MLK and an orphaned leg of North Liberty Street, community leaders want to open a 2,000-squarefoot local produce market modeled after the old incarnation of Deep Roots Market in Greensboro. For now, Suggs said, the community garden is part of an effort to change people’s concept of food.

“In our society, there’s such a prevalence of fast food,” he said. “It’s a fast-food mentality. People aren’t used to seeing vegetables in their natural state. People don’t cook like they used to. They don’t know what fresh vegetables look like, nor do they even know how to prepare them. We’re in this fast-food mentality where people don’t want to stand over a stove and take the time to prepare a meal.”

Donald Mebane might be considered the Johnny Appleseed of the community garden movement in East Winston.

“I’ve been doing community gardens for the last 20 years,” said Mebane, an extension agent for NC A&T University’s Cooperative Extension Service in Winston- Salem. “I was doing community gardens before community gardens became kosher. I established so many community gardens in low-resource communities, I became so busy, we had to hire a community garden coordinator.”

Mebane grew up in Jacksonville, and worked on his grandparents’ farm in neighboring Duplin County. He graduated from Winston-Salem State University, having studied sociology and political science. He found that he preferred working with people over massaging the abstractions of power and policy, so he went to work with the Cooperative Extension Service.

“One of our mottoes is ‘building community through community garden projects,’” Mebane said.

With funding from the Winston-Salem Foundation, Mebane and Community Garden Coordinator Mary Jac Brennan have helped establish about 30 community gardens in East Winston through the Winston Grows program.

Mebane and Milton Kennedy work closely together and share an interest in education and community building through gardening. Kennedy works with the federal Job Corps program to help young people ages 16-24 find jobs. Mebane and Kennedy helped a group of fourth-grade girls and their mothers set up a garden at Kimberley Elementary that was highlighted in First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2012 book American Grown: The Story of the White House Garden and Gardens Across America.

When a church, school or community group contacts Mebane or Brennan, they conduct a pH test on the lot to see if the soil needs remediation. They send someone, often Mebane himself, to till, and they provide free seeds and tools to the community gardeners. Through the Winston Grows program they teach gardeners how to harvest rainwater through rain-barreling. They bring the gardeners together periodically so they can exchange tips and share fellowship. For those who are interested in advanced gardening and developing the expertise to teach others the Cooperative Extension Service offers a master gardener certification.

Mebane, Brennan and the community leaders with whom they work promote the idea that anyone can garden no matter how much or little experience, ability and land they might have. As if to illustrate the point, the demonstration garden at the Cooperative Extension Service and Goler Community Garden both have raised beds, about three feet high, that are designed so that people who are wheelchair-dependent can work in them.

“Gardening is my cover,” Kennedy said, laughing as he articulated the concept of his vocation. “I’m an educator. Now I’m working in the classroom. Now I grow people.”

Echoing the observations of other educators, Kennedy said children enjoy gardening, and that they learn to take their time and become more aware of their surroundings and themselves.

“One of the boys had come – I gave them squash – he said, ‘My mother didn’t know what to do with it,’” Kennedy recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s why education.’” Hunger in East Winston stems from both lack of access to healthy, affordable food and lack of access to employment and income. The two are surely interconnected.

“There’s a food shortage in Forsyth County,” Mebane said. “One bell pepper at the grocery store might cost one dollar, but you can get a pack of seeds for 50 cents. We don’t have a lot of farmers markets that serve East Winston. You might have to get across town and pay the cost of gas. And a lot of farmers markets are not affordable.”

The Food Research and Action Center notoriously ranked the Winston-Salem metropolitan area No. 1 for food hardship last August. The report was based on a Gallup-Healthways telephone survey finding 34.8 percent of families with children in the metro area reported that they did not have enough money to buy needed food at least once during the previous year. (The 17th-ranked Greensboro-High Point metro area didn’t do much better, with 28.4 percent of respondents saying they had lacked money to buy needed food sometime during the past year.)

Much of Winston-Salem can be considered poor, based on median family incomes falling below 67 percent of the $51,303 median for the metro area as a whole. The area east of US Highway 52 from East 25th Street down to Business 40 qualifies as super-poor, with median family incomes in three Census tracts ranging from $9,519 to $21,794. Between two and three out of 10 able-bodied adults of working age in the area are out of work, compared to 9.6 percent unemployment in Forsyth County as a whole.

The area has two grocery stores, a Food Lion and a Save-A-Lot both located at the intersection of MLK and New Walkertown Road. With public housing, including Sunrise Towers and Cleveland Avenue Homes, along with several privately-owned, low-income communities, clustered in the area, the market for retail has simply collapsed. The Philly Steak and Subs restaurant near Save-A- Lot has long since closed; likewise with a chicken-and-honey establishment on East 5th Street. Left to absorb the dining-out business are McDonald’s and Burger King.

Such a place is practically made for community gardens.

New Bethel Baptist Church established a community garden on East 16th Street last year as part of a cancer services outreach program. The garden is across the street from two boarded-up houses. Down the block at the corner of North Liberty and East 16th streets prostitutes, drug dealers and panhandlers work a gas station parking lot despite management’s attempts to discourage their activities.

“People walk the streets here, and when they want to get something from the garden they just come in with no repercussions,” Mebane said. “People will say, ‘Oh, all they’re going to do is tear it up. But they don’t; that’s their food source.”

During a recent visit as Mebane and Kennedy were inspecting the green beans and okra, a woman who introduced herself as Toni approached the men.

“They been tearin’ the garden up,” she said. Toni confessed she herself had picked an eggplant or two. She said likes to cook the meaty vegetable with egg and flour.

“I do my little do whatever and stuff like that,” Toni told Mebane and Kennedy with a sly smile, “but still, I gotta eat, too.”

“We gotta feed our people,” Kennedy said.

Toni disclosed that an elderly lady in the neighborhood had sent her over to pick some green beans for after church one Sunday.

“It’s a lot of hunger out, especially over here,” Toni said. “Lot of hungry people.”

She told the two men she needed to find a job.

“I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink,” she said.

“I use my money to get me food. You can’t eat crack. You can’t eat powder. You can’t eat weed.”

After Toni bade the men goodbye, Mebane turned to Kennedy and said, “That’s an impact statement there, brother.”

Mebane said he wanted to share the story with the church volunteers, adding that he expected they would approve.

“Look at the people walking past here that was hungry that you fed,” Mebane said. “’Cause it says, ‘When I was hungry, you fed me.”

“You fed me,” Kennedy repeated. “Huh?

Come on, now!” Mebane erupted in joyous laughter. At five years old, Alpha and Omega Church of Faith’s community garden is one of the most longstanding in East Winston.

“In this area the church is set in there is a lot of obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” Bishop John Huntley said. “Some of our people are elderly people; some of them have a hard time getting to the grocery store.”

Alpha and Omega Church of Faith sets in a low spot where North Gray Avenue turns a corner into East 16th Street. The garden lies across Gray on higher ground. The church initially purchased the property for a parking lot. They cleared the kudzu and uncovered two sets of steps indicating that a house had once stood there. The church didn’t have the funds to pave the lot and the city worked with them to accommodate street parking, so the church’s leaders decided to plant a garden instead.

The pastor called a meeting to draw together a team of people to install the garden. The members broke the ground with shovels and picks. The church eventually purchased a tiller, and Bishop Huntley and Deacon Russell Johnson now take responsibility for cultivating the ground. The Cooperative Extension Service provided tomato seeds. The bountiful garden now produces corn, turnip greens, okra, mixed greens, mustard greens and zucchini.

Much of the produce winds up in the church’s pantry and is distributed to people who need it, but some residents of the neighborhood pick food directly from the garden.

“We had a lot of people who didn’t know how to harvest,” Bishop Huntley said, laughing. “They would pull up the whole plant. So we put up a sign saying, ‘Please check in before you pick.’” The church brought together a group of 30 children one time to work in the garden. Bishop Huntley recalled that the children mistakenly believed that all the vegetables were either cabbage or carrots.

“All the children got a zucchini,” Deloris Huntley, director of the church’s family life institute and wife of the pastor, recalled. “They treasured them. One little girl started eating it in the church. We said, ‘No, no, baby. Take that home and have your mama cook it for you.’” Deloris Huntley said the church wants to get the Cooperative Extension Service to teach a workshop on freezing and canning. The church also plans to expand the garden with fruit trees and strawberries.

The Huntleys want to teach self suf ficiency through the garden, but also instill a sense of interdependence and community solidarity.

“We have to get back to what our forefathers were doing,” said Bishop Huntley, who grew up on a farm.

Milton Kennedy, a student of US history, turns to the past for a vision of a future where food has more of a spiritual dimension and people know how to take care of themselves.

“If you don’t talk about the agrarian culture during the time after the Civil War… you have to remember the CC camps and the victory gardens,” he said. “That’s the goal is to get it back like that.

“We’ve been in hard times because we neglected what we’re about,” Kennedy added.

Similar to Kennedy, the Huntley’s work is geared more towards developing inner and community resources than insisting on maintenance of the social contract. “We’ve gotten spoiled,” Deloris Huntley said. “We done got soft. We go to the store and buy a can of biscuits. We don’t know how to bake or can. Even ants know how to preserve food for the winter.”