South Charlotte

Growing fresh vegetables to help the needy

Thomas Duncan, 52, likes tomatoes. He marvels at how different they can taste depending on where they are grown, even from one end of the road to another.

Duncan's fondness for tomatoes, and for other "good, local food," prompted him to join the Slow Food movement in 1999 because he wanted to "tap into an organization of like-minded folks."

Founded in 1989, Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world who are dedicated to providing an alternative "to the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world."

Duncan, who was already supporting local food and farmers and food that is "good, clean and fair," kept waiting for someone to start a Charlotte Slow Food chapter.

In December 2004, he started one himself.

At its core, the Charlotte Slow Food chapter, with a paying membership of more than 100 and more than 1,000 followers on Facebook, is focused on building community around local food economies.

This includes giving local farmers a Slow Food flag to display at farmers markets so that they can be readily identifiable as local and sustainable when selling their produce.

"You'd be amazed how many Charlotte farmers markets do not sell local produce," said Duncan.

Slow Food Charlotte's commitment to local food and gardening has led to a unique partnership with Friendship Trays, a nonprofit meal delivery program serving more than 600 meals each day in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Lucy Bush Carter, director of Friendship Trays, wanted to plant a garden that could supply Friendship Trays with its own vegetables and herbs.

She asked Henry Owen, the local outreach coordinator for Covenant Presbyterian Church and a renowned gardener, for help.

Owen, 27, who moved to Charlotte from San Antonio, oversaw the digging and planting of the Friendship Trays garden and saw it through its first growing season. Slow Food Charlotte then joined the partnership and helped Owen harvest the first crop.

Working together, Owen and Duncan redid the Friendship Trays garden and designed it to be a demonstration and teaching garden as well. They set it up in a whimsical way, such as showcasing lots of children's artwork and using an old bathtub as a large herb planter.

Owen and Duncan partnered with Friendship Trays to create a garden. Since then, they have partnered with 10 other organizations to create gardens with them, using their initial partnership with Friendship Trays as a model.

The most recent Friendship Gardens initiative is its most unique and ambitious partnership.

"I got a call from the warden at Camp Green Prison (Charlotte's Correctional Facility located by the airport)," Duncan said. "He said he had 12 acres, 200 men and he wanted a garden."

After meeting with the prison's warden and chaplain, Duncan and Owen agreed to help the prison plant a garden. They decided to start with one acre, with the possibility of expansion. They were awarded a Woman's Impact Fund grant and have used the funding to plough the land, educate the prisoners and prison staff about how to maintain, harvest and cook the crops.

Half of the prison harvest will be shared with Friendship Trays. It is an arrangement that epitomizes what Friendship Gardens endeavors to do with its partnerships, ensuring that "the food that is harvested will get into the hands of the people who need it most."

Both Duncan and Owen are eager to replicate their initial success with as many people and organizations as they can, focusing on both production and education.

In order to enlist the help of Friendship Gardens, you need to have a site that is appropriate and a community of people that are passionate because, as Owen puts it, "we can't tend the garden for them."

Friendship Gardens can, however, "do the dirty work and provide the training, vendors, some materials and the expertise" to get partnering organizations started. Duncan points out that "there are more prisoners in the United States than there are farmers."

If Friendship Gardens has its way, that statistic can be reversed.

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