Friday, March 13, 2015

Farm to Friends

By Justin Brantley
AmeriCorps VISTA at Feast Down East, Wilmington, NC

My name is Justin Brantley and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA Member Serving in South Eastern North Carolina. For the past 7 months I have been working with a Non Profit called Feast Down East. This organization’s goal is to connect limited resource farmers to various outlets for their produce to help strengthen the local food economy by keeping food dollars in this region. These outlets include restaurants, grocery stores, institutions, as well as fresh markets in the region.  My focus has been to reach additional low income communities.

In my last semester I was volunteering at a community based fresh market within a Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA) community called Rankin Terrace.  As I heard about VISTA through my involvement as a volunteer I was able to apply for VISTA after I graduated in May. One of my first duties as a new VISTA was to assume the role of the fresh market facilitator at the Rankin Terrace Community.  One of the most important aspects of our Fresh Market program is that the residents of this community help run the market each week.  This resident support is essential to the success of our market program.

R to L: Justin with FoodCorps Members
One of my roles has been to help further expand our reach into low income communities in the Wilmington Area.  As a new VISTA I was able to access office space in another WHA Community called Hillcrest through the partnership with Feast Down East, UNCW, and the WHA.  Hillcrest is the oldest standing Housing Authority Development and was built not long after WW2.  This community has had a history of criminal activity but has seen great improvements in recent years due to a strengthened partnership between the WHA and Wilmington Police.

When I first came to Hillcrest the residents weren’t as friendly or perceptive as I would have preferred.  However, given time to get to know some of the residents through Community Meetings as well as through shared activities at the community center I have found that they are great people who really care about bringing positive change to their community.  There are many groups that come into community to try and “help” but may provide a short term service and leave never to return. I have found that as soon as residents begin to realize that you are here for an extended period of time in an attempt to bring positive resources to the community they will open up and show their support.

In working at Hillcrest I have been able to identify a leader in one of the older residents.  From the start she seemed interested in working with a community garden in this community. Since September I have worked closely with this resident in attempts to establish a garden club in association with the community garden but had little success over the winter getting additional residents involved.  In December we were able to start a new fresh market at the Hillcrest Community. The market is ultimately modeled after the Market at Rankin Terrace.  Since December this market has seen success in that we have begun to identify our regular customers within the community.  One of the challenges of this market has been getting the surrounding community to participate.

There has been a great amount of student support in regards to our ongoing programming. I have 
Residents and Students at the
first Hillcrest Fresh Marke
found that is has been a greater challenge recruiting volunteers from within the WHA Communities.  I typically see the elementary aged children at the after-school program and the significantly older residents in the neighborhood. I have had a difficult time reaching people in between.  For various reasons it has been difficult reaching this population of people.  The children are limited in ways they can work with our organization as well as the older adults.  It’s the prime age of physical capability that I have had a difficulty reaching.  One thing that can be frustrating in working in such communities is that the older individuals are supportive of positive change in the community but due to physical limitations they may not be able to be as supportive as they would like while the individuals who are most capable can often be the most difficult to reach.

It takes time to see the results of your work in such communities but with the implementation of the Fresh Market at Hillcrest success can be seen at each market as student volunteers interact with residents in the operation of the market.  Most often winning is found in the race itself.