My Saturday morning in Raleigha Second Saturdaystarts at Moore Square. Three dozen of us have come to this “Movable Gathering for Good,” a walking tour that will open our eyes to the possibilities of urban agriculture in our city. Our guide is Erin White, a former farm manager, carpenter, cook and chef whose specialty is designing local food systems.

“Imagine, everything here that could be part of a food chain,” says White, who runs Community Food Lab, his design and consulting firm.

For 12 blocks and a couple of hours, we do. We imagine where food could be grown, who could grow it, who would eat it, and the marvelous effect on community life if we worked together to provide better food for one another.“Farms and gardens can be social public spaces, public health assets, crime prevention projects, municipal cost savers, air purifiers, recreation areas and job training centers.”
Open Food, Vol. 1, published by Community Food Lab, White’s firm. It’s available as a free download from the organization’s website.

The Raleigh food corridor, a term coined by White, is a collection of enterprises strung together in a two-mile band straddling Blount Street downtown from City Farm to the Inter-faith Food Shuttle‘s Hoke Street Training Center. The corridor’s purpose is to give a name to what our food chain could look like.

So on this Second Saturdaya collaboration of the Community Food Lab and the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundationthere’s volunteer gardening at Hoke Street, a planting exhibition at Exploris Middle School, a DIY salsa station run by the Boys and Girls Club, bean-salad making at Marbles Kids Museum and a mobile Grocer on Wheels selling local produce.

We climb nine levels to the top of the Moore Square parking deck, where we look out to see all the downtown construction, and the many vacant lots that remain.

Nobody’s parking on them; nobody’s using them for anything. They aresomeone sayswasted dirt. To say nothing of the wasted rooftops.

Thousands of people live downtown, and before long tens of thousands will. But almost no food is grown hereyet.

On the ground, we find four or five empty, dusty lots on Blount Street just below City Market. Some of the lots are city-owned, White says. Cue some grumbling about the city, but White won’t have it. “The city isn’t holding things back,” he says. “It’s waiting for the community to express itself” about what it wants.

A few blocks east, there are more empty lots, some city-owned, around Carlton Place, most of which is subsidized housing. Here, however, members of the community are expressing themselves and filling a void. Jenny Harper and Lauren DiSimone, whose house is nearby, are growing lettuce, tomatoes, melons and okra in raised beds on a privately owned lotwith the owner’s permission. And giving the food away.

This is the Prince Hall neighborhood, historically black, which thrived in segregation days but today is pock-marked by teardowns. “This is such a beautiful, walkable neighborhood,” Harper says. “But we have all these vacant lots that are fragmenting us and keeping us apart.”

Let’s connect the dots. We have vacant lots (and rooftops) that can be gardens. We need markets, but the big commercial grocers aren’t interested. Southeast Raleigh lost two grocery stores last year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, much of East Raleigh is “food insecure,” meaning it lacks accessible, healthy food at affordable prices.

The food corridor idea suggests that solutions might be within our grasp.

Hopefully this subject is not new to you. It isn’t new to me, but seeing the issues with people who are working on them put them in a different light.

People like Carleen Jamison and her son, Chance, a Broughton High School student, who have eggplant, pumpkins and peas growing in a community garden on East Martin Street. Like Shiaoching (Ching) Tse, an Enloe High School student who’s in a club, The Food Ark, where they’re learning to grow vegetables in containers. Growing food for people is good, she says. Showing them how to grow food is better.

Our last stop was the Oak City Outreach Center, near Moore Square, the new city-supported center for community groups and churches to distribute food to the needy. Rick Miller-Haraway, who heads Catholic Charities in Raleigh, says the center will give out 400 meals every weekend. At its own pantry, he said, Catholic Charities gives a week’s worth of groceries to 11,000 people every monthand it’s not the only such group.

The need, in short, is enormous.

But so are the opportunities to serve, which is the point Nation Hahn wants to make. Nation lost his wife, Jamie, in an episode of senseless violence last year, and the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation was created to honor her memory and commitment to public service.

Its motto is “Help the helpers.” Nation says that it means, “reach out to the people with the skills, passion and desire to serve” and point them to where they can do the most good. There’s great work being done to provide food and combat hunger.

And it’s work all of us can do.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Building the Food Corridor.”