On Wednesday and Thursday, the first-annual Carolina Food Summit in Chapel Hill gathered together a group of at least one hundred community leaders, writers, professors, business owners, chefs, and others to talk about the state of food in North Carolina.
Among the forty speakers invited to share their solutions for a broken food system was 2015 CNN Hero Reverend Richard Joyner. At the Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church in Edgecombe County, Joyner channels support for and from his congregation and local community through food.
“About ninety-seven percent of the things that challenge us could be answered through food,” Joyner insists.
Reverend Joyner was named a Top 10 CNN Hero last year for his leading endeavors in food sustainability, a type of work that he never expected doing as a pastor in a town with less than 300 people. But after presiding over dozens of funerals for congregation members under the age of thirty-five who died as a result of diabetes, Joyner knew his community’s relationship with food needed to change so that his people could thrive.
On a panel on Thursday, Joyner cited that poor nutrition leads to malnourished youth in the classroom who become less focused and experience decreased energy. His county, cited as a ‘food desert,’ means that senior citizens don’t have easy access to food, either.
So he began talking with his community to think of a plan.
“Our families having healthy food on their table everyday, fresh food that wasn’t filled with sodium. Food that was fresh, plucked, harvested that day, cooked that day. And so it united our community to say to [ourselves], ‘We can do this. We can do this.’”
With the help of youth from the community, his church manages gardens on what he calls “community spaces,” including a farm that’s been owned for a hundred years by a black family.
“I really wasn’t going to study theology to farm,” Joyner recalls. “And so, farming sort of came as God’s way of saying that I wasn’t going to preach this congregation I led. But I could farm…”
During the summer, the kids plant seeds and maintain the field, and during the school year, they participate in official after-school programs to harvest, sell the produce at farmer’s markets, deliver the produce to local restaurants like On the Source, and to grocery stores.
“A bunch of youth went into a grocery store, told the owner that his collards looked terrible,” Joyner says, grinning. “And they said, ‘Our collards look better than your collards.’ And so he said, well, ‘Bring me some of your collards.’ And they came back and told us that the man wanted to start purchasing collards from us. And they carried eight cases of collards to his grocery store, and that was the first sale we had…
“Now, that’s not my way of marketing,” he chuckles. “But it works.”
The need for a community farm dovetailed with the church’s ambition for summer camps and after-school programs for children to provide activities for everyone.
Joyner lists the benefits he’s seen from the church’s sustainability efforts, including an increase in physical exercise outside. “We found that [the youth] were enjoying things. They were coming off some ADD medicine, using asthma pods a lot less. We found that some kids lost thirty pounds over the summer. And their attitudes changed toward each other.”
Because children have arguably benefited the most from the church’s efforts, it’s fitting that, ultimately, the gardens’ evolution will be up to them.
“I think we underestimate the present position of our youth to lead us,” Joyner explains. “I think they are brilliant. I think one of the things that happens with us, as old people—and I consider myself an old person—is that we hang around too long trying to set the future. And what really happens is that we get in the way of the future by not empowering youth to step up and be creative.”
The youth of Conetoe Community Baptist Church and Family Life Center will have their photography on display at The Carrack’s Reframing Food exhibit in Durham, October 11-22.