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The Voice of the Black Community

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Fruits of her labor
Food justice advocate gains national attention
 
Published Thursday, December 13, 2012 7:10 am
by Herbert L. White

Robin Emmons is no stranger to going the extra mile for a decent meal.

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PHOTO/MICHAEL C. HERNANDEZ
Robin Emmons is executive director of Sow Much Good, a Charlotte food and nutrition collective. The nonprofit’s mission is to eliminate the absence of organic food sources in so-called “food deserts.”


Growing up in Boston, access to fresh vegetables and fruits required a trip of several miles to the nearest supermarket. Her family was lucky – they had a car.


“I lived in a food desert,” she said. “It wasn’t called that at the time, but I remember my parents having to drive well outside our neighborhood several miles away to get anything that didn’t come from a liquor store or corner store with white bread and packaged hot dogs.”


Emmons, who lives in Huntersville, never forgot that reality.


In 2009, she launched Sow Much Good, a food and nutrition collective that advocates dietary self-reliance in low-income communities. The nonprofit’s profile grew to national scale in 2012, with publications like People magazine chronicling its success.


“I’m still astonished,” Emmons said. “It was never my intention and I didn’t do it for fame.  I can tell you there’s no fortune in farming.”


Emmons is The Post’s newsmaker of the year, which acknowledges individuals who’ve had a major impact on the Charlotte community.
Since the first newsmaker profile was published in 1990 – on former U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt – 23 others have been named. The list include U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, civil rights attorney James Ferguson, Mothers of Murdered Offspring founder Dee Sumpter and Charlotte Bobcats founder Bob Johnson.


Hunger is a problem in America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25.1 percent of black households were insecure in 2011, the last year statistics were available. The national percentage of food-insecure homes is 14.9 percent.


Lack of adequate food and a healthy diet impacts daily life from achievement gaps among students to preventable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Blacks are statistically more likely to live in areas where healthy food choices are unavailable.


“African Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by unemployment and poverty and there is a strong correlation to food insecurity rates,” said the Rev. Derrick Boykin, associate for African American leadership outreach at Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit. “It is unconscionable that so many in our community continue to suffer, though we know the figures could be far worse were it not for government nutrition programs helping to keep hunger at bay.”


That’s where Emmons and Sow Much Good comes in. The collective builds gardens in neighborhoods where access to fresh food is limited and encourages residents to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. It also conducts healthy-eating workshops and sells produce at below-market prices in low-income communities.


The first garden, a 9-acre site in Huntersville, is still in production; another is at Ashley Park Elementary School, where students are taught the science of agriculture in addition to growing food with their families.


Plans are in place to expand the program to the Grier Heights community and Sunset Road/Beatties Ford Road area and possibly a cooperative to deliver food in other communities.


“We’ve been running the nonprofit based on this model where we’ve been growing the food in Huntersville, bringing into the community, taking some of the food from the garden in Charlotte and distributing it to neighborhoods that are classified as food deserts,” Emmons said.


“In 2013, we’re looking at creating meaningful spaces for the community to bring people in and get them invested in the process of growing this food, preparing this food and revitalizing communities with our first urban farm.”


Emmons is an accidental activist. She assembled care packages of fruits and vegetables from her garden for her brother, who battled homelessness and mental illness. Not only did eating healthy help his recovery, it inspired Emmons to expand the concept.


“I began to take note of people like my brother who were maybe not homeless or mentally ill but were just left completely out of the local food movement,” she said. “I did it as a human rights issue and just felt like I could do what I could.”


An added benefit to working production gardens is the reconnection particpants have with the nation’s agrarian past. As a country that relies on corporate farms, Americans have long left tilling and planting to machines and migrant labor. Sow Much Good adds a culturally-signficant bridge – small-scale farmers in an urban area.


“I want to honor the farmers from our ancestry and those people of color who are working the land today,” she said. “I’m a wannabe farmer, right? I’m aspiring (but) it’s a painful history where there was a mass exodus of people leaving the South to go to North to get away from their farming past. In doing so, we disconnected ourselves from the land and disconnected ourselves from understanding where food comes from …and our innate self-reliance and self-sufficiency.”


The attention focused on food deserts is overdue, Emmons insists. It’s the responsibility of communities to devote time and effort into eliminating food disparities and the health issues they cause.


“It is surprising in as much as this is not a new issue,” Emmons said. “This is an issue that has always existed and now we’ve been able to name it and call it a food desert but we know these disparities have existed for many, many years.”

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