OASIS PROJECT: The Goal is to Create an Urban Farm at a Church

Posted on October 29, 2013

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GREENSBORO — Prince of Peace Lutheran Church was looking for a mission.

N.C. A&T was seeking real-world experience for its horticulture students.

UNCG professor Marianne LeGreco wanted to expand the Warnersville Farmers Market.

The Guilford County Department of Public Health wanted to bring fresh food to one of the city’s worst food deserts.

Matthew King wanted to bring urban horticulture to the east Greensboro neighborhoods where his father once built houses for low-income families.

Every now and then, all the right elements converge at just the right time. So it is with the City Oasis Project.

Modeled on successful programs elsewhere, most notably Milwaukee, the City Oasis Project aims to create an urban farm in Warnersville where greenhouses and aquaponics produce large quantities of fruits and vegetables that can be processed and sold in an area nearly bereft of fresh food. It would not only produce food but also create jobs in the low-income area.

What sets the City Oasis Project apart from existing food programs is its comprehensive approach, said Mark Smith, epidemiologist with the county health department.

“You’re not only addressing food issues, but poverty and unemployment that are contributing to the problem,” Smith said.

The project is only in the planning stages, but with the players involved so far, it has the potential to revitalize east Greensboro.

A food desert
The county health department realized the county had a problem in 2009. A community health assessment showed the presence of food deserts in several areas in south and east Greensboro and central High Point.
“Food deserts are defined in terms of proximity to supermarkets along with high poverty rates,” Smith said. If at least 33 percent of the population lives at least a mile from a supermarket and more than 20 percent live below the poverty level, the area is considered a food desert.

Guilford County has 24 census tracts considered food deserts, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Seventeen are in Greensboro, clustered mostly in the east and southeast sectors of the city.

Last year, the city received another jaw-dropping statistic: The Greensboro-High Point metropolitan area tied for second in the nation (with New Orleans) for areas highest in food insecurity. The food-insecurity ranking in Food Hardship in America 2012 was determined by the number of respondents who say they’ve lacked money to buy food at least once in the past 12 months.

Ground zero for food deserts in Greensboro is the census tract containing Warnersville, the city’s oldest African American community. It has the highest poverty rate in the county.

Without supermarkets nearby, most residents buy food at convenience stores, which generally accept SNAP benefits, but often lack fresh produce. SNAP refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.

“Our overarching concern is with the health issues related to these things,” Smith said. “We know through our community assessment work that these area also have high rates of obesity and chronic disease, like diabetes and heart disease.”

Access to better food would help address the area’s health issues.

More than a market
Marianne LeGreco, an associate professor specializing in health communication and food policy at UNCG, was equally alarmed at the statistics about food deserts in Greensboro.

LeGreco began working with Smith and Urban Harvest, a nonprofit group advocating urban farming, who were then searching for land in east Greensboro to start an urban farm.

The group spent six months securing permission to use a site, only to find that the ground was too contaminated for farming.

Smith, LeGreco and others started meeting at the Warnersville Recreation Center — right down the street from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church — to work with residents on finding another site.

Prince of Peace was also at a crossroads. The congregation had dwindled, and the church had lost its full-time pastor.

“We were floundering, not sure what we were going to do,” said Hunter Haith, a member of the church council. “Our new pastor wanted us to focus on what we wanted to do in terms of outreach.”

They settled on a health and wellness focus.

The church building occupied an acre of the 3-acre lot; the rest was essentially a large lawn. The idea of a community garden had already taken root when they discovered the health department had been searching for a site.

“I consider it divine intervention it happened, that we started coming together,” Haith said.

LeGreco helped secure grants for the project from groups, including Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Lutheran church. They started with a half-acre in April 2012 and grew enough in the first season to donate 250 pounds of produce to the neighborhood, Urban Ministries and Share the Harvest, which collects and distributes produce to low-income families.
The first Warnersville Farmers Market was held in August 2011 at J.C. Price School.

“The farmers came, and 120 people came out on the hottest day of summer,” LeGreco recalls. They did three more before the end of the season. The Warnersville Farmers Market, now held at Prince of Peace, has two full years under its belt, but LeGreco realizes it’s not the complete solution.

“If we just want to be a community garden and farmers market, we’ve got that, no problem,” LeGreco said.

But they want an urban farm that can produce higher yields. They want a mobile farmers market that can go into the neighborhoods and reach people who can’t come to the market. They want to find a way to get fresh produce into convenience stores where people shop.

To do any of these things, the group must have an organizational framework to oversee the effort and make it sustainable.

“I knew things I would love to see,” LeGreco said, “but we haven’t had people in place to make things happen. That’s the piece that Matthew fulfills.”

Matthew King, 24, got the big idea more than a year ago, when he was still an undergraduate at N.C. Central University in Durham. He wanted to create a nonprofit organization that would bring sustainable food sources to low-income communities by using hoop houses — agricultural tents that use solar energy for year-round gardening and can fit onto small lots in urban areas.

King created a nonprofit named after his late father, Project Homestead founder Michael King, and vowed to return to Greensboro after graduation and have a project up and running in east Greensboro by the end of 2013.
“We’re not a big city, so how do we rank so highly in food insecurity?” King asked. “We’re an agricultural state, and we’re getting it wrong. But these problems are solvable.”

When he returned to Greensboro, he was planning to enroll in an entrepreneurial Ph.D. program until Smith introduced him to Guochen Yang from the agriculture department at N.C. A&T. The timing couldn’t have been better.

A&T had just created the first undergraduate program in the nation for urban and community horticulture, as well as a master’s degree program emphasizing sustainable agriculture. The administration was also encouraging more community involvement for faculty members and students.

“We want to produce quality students who can go and get started right away on practical projects,” Yang said. “We want them to be ready to solve real-world problems.”

Given King’s goals, Yang reasoned, a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture, focusing on urban horticulture, might be a better fit. The City Oasis could serve as his graduate capstone project and become a place for other horticulture students to train.

“It really was a perfect match,” Yang said.

King’s community-development corporation, now called Vision Tree, signed a memo of understanding with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church this month to use its property for the City Oasis Project.

A&T benefits from the outreach component and provides a base of knowledge and expertise that King can use to develop the project.

Vision Tree provides an organizational structure that can oversee and coordinate efforts.

“The foundational piece is what we provide,” King said. “We bring entrepreneurship and leadership.”

The big idea
King stands in the parking lot at Prince of Peace, and describes the layout. Four greenhouses will be built perpendicular to the street, with the aquaponics facility in back. The permanent pavilion for the Warnersville Farmers Market will go on the left side of the parking lot. A wooded area will be cleared to plant an orchard with fruit trees.

The farmers market is already working to be approved as a SNAP/EBT site so that residents can buy healthy food with their benefit dollars. The project calls for a mobile market to bring produce into neighborhoods and a distribution center to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to local convenience stores.

Because it is designed to be a high-yield operation, it is expected to create jobs in food production, processing and distribution. At the same time, students will get hands-on experience in urban horticulture using innovative methods such as aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water instead of soil). The waste products from the fish become nutrients for the plants, and the water filtered by the plants is recirculated back to the fish.

King said he believes the City Oasis Project has the potential to create economic development, teach life skills, provide access to healthy food and promote community health.

“It all seemed to fit into what we’d like to see in the community,” Prince of Peace’s Haith said. “However long it will take, we plan to be there doing what we’re doing, and make our space available for that type purpose.”
But, he acknowledges, it’s going to take a lot more resources.

It’s an ambitious plan, Smith said, but it’s doable.

“There are a lot of pieces, but we have a lot of resources and we have a lot of collaborators,” he said. “If the will is there, it’s not something that’s beyond our capacity to make it happen.”

Both universities, the health department and the church will be applying for grants to get the program started.
King is applying for a $1 million grant for the project through the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Challenge.
But a key part of the concept is a business model that will make it self-supporting, so that once it is established, it won’t need to rely on grant funding.

The plan is based on a model that has been proven to work in neighborhoods with similar profiles, LeGreco said. It builds on what has already been established, and takes it to the next level. The city is ready to take on such a project, she said.

“It is that critical moment when you need an influx of new leadership and ideas,” LeGreco said. “We need a big idea. We’re already doing the little things.”

reposted from the News & Record
By Susan Ladd susan.ladd@news-record.com

Contact Susan Ladd at (336) 373-7006, and follow @susankladd on Twitter.
Photo credit: H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record
Photo caption: NCAT professors Dr. Gouchen Yang (l) and Professor Odile Huchette pose with graduate student Michael King (r) at site where King plans to break ground on his urban horticulture project in the Warnersville neighborhood of Greensboro, NC on October 21, 2013.

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