By Joyce Latimer, Professor of Horticulture at Virginia Tech
The Virginia Cooperative Extension Community, Local, and Regional Food Systems Forum opened with a powerful success story of communication and cooperation between Brittany Council and Twandra Lomax-Brown of Virginia Cooperative Extension in Richmond City and the community told by Dr. Morris Henderson, pastor of the 31st Street Baptist Church in Richmond.
Dr. Henderson and his church have been feeding the hungry and homeless in their community since 1990 when the local soup kitchen closed. In 2009, Dr. Henderson had a great vision to use his church property, and members and volunteers to create a community garden that would help feed the citizens of Richmond and contribute to the eradication of food deserts in the city. The church founded the Darrel Rollins Memorial Community Garden in honor of a previous pastor at the church.
Dr. Henderson had church members with gardening experience, but he needed the depth and breadth of knowledge, technical assistance, and networking that VCE could provide to expand this community garden into a fully functional urban farm that could help address the food desert issue. Dr. Henderson approached Extension agents Council and Lomax-Brown for assistance. They connected him with Amber Morgan, 4-H youth development agent, and Joe Logan, youth family nutrition program associate, who provided individuals with information about youth programs and basic education on the selection, use, and nutrition of fresh produce. In addition, local Extension Master Gardeners provided basic educational resources such as soil sample kits and growing guidance and assistance, and worked with the Mayor’s Conservation Corps Youth summer interns to begin the actual work of forming of the community garden on the church property.
Extension faculty members at Virginia State University added another valuable component to the process, helping to address soil contamination issues and to improve crop production and yield. These collaborators also introduced Dr. Henderson to local USDA personnel and programs. In January 2014, the 31st Street Baptist Church became the first urban church in the United States with a USDA farm serial number. This designation has made the farm eligible for grants and cost-share programs to expand the operation.
Additional connections assisted in the growth and development of the Urban Church. Leanne DuBois of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helped the church establish a farmers market and promoted the church garden and its farmers market through their small farms promotion programs. Lomax-Brown and Joe Logan assisted with establishing SNAP benefits at the farmers market and establishing summer lunch programs for children in the area.
As the Darrell Rollins Memorial Community Garden continues to grow, other organizations have stepped up to help provide the community with more accessible, healthy, and nutritious foods. Tricycle Gardens, another Richmond-based non-profit dedicated to promoting healthy communities with healthy food systems, is now managing the farm project, bringing their production and farm management expertise to the project. Another partner, Bon Secours Health System, has awarded grants that double the value of SNAP benefits used at the 31st Street Baptist Church Farmers Market.
As Dr. Morris Henderson’s vision of the urban farm at 31st Street Baptist Church continues to expand with more crop production, food and nutrition programs, distribution outlets, and partners, Virginia Cooperative Extension will be on-hand to facilitate the networking and education for its continued growth and success.
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