South Charlotte

It started with a few vegetables

Most people would view the arrest of a family member as a traumatic life event, but for Robin Emmons, 45, her brother's arrest in the spring of 2008 was "a blessing in disguise."

She had always felt tremendous guilt about her corporate job and lifestyle while her brother, Brian, 47, who suffered from chronic mental illness, lived on the streets and ate out of garbage cans. His arrest and incarceration was a wakeup call for Emmons, who "became consumed with advocating for him."

Emmons quit her job at Bank of America to herself to helping her brother navigate the many social services that he needed. She assured her husband, a retired state trooper, that she had a plan.

"But," she now admits, "I had no plan. I just knew I wanted out."

Meanwhile, serving as her brother's guardian proved to be a full-time endeavor and one that opened her eyes to the health risks of his lifestyle.

"Even when he was in a good program," Emmons recalls, "he was not eating a healthy diet because cans, packages and mass-produced food were all his residential program could afford to feed its residents."

Emmons, an avid gardener who lives in Huntersville, decided to plant a few extra rows of vegetables so that she could donate them to her brother's residential program.

After filling her Volvo with boxes of zucchini and eggplant that she donated to Mecklenburg Open Door, where her brother was living at the time, a friend suggested she think about a solution that was more sustainable.

"You should start a foundation or a nonprofit," the friend suggested. Emmons agreed, knowing that she wanted to not only help her brother, but also address the many health issues that African-American women face. She was convinced that food was at the heart of the solution, but that she couldn't grow everything herself.

"Community gardens and farmers markets are great," Emmons says, "but it is quite an elitist movement. There are whole sections of folks being left out."

Knowing how important fresh produce is to one's health and well-being, Emmons decided to spread the word about "how the poor and other disenfranchised groups were being left out of the food revolution."

With a $7,500 grant from Wells Fargo, she was able to arrange for a November 2010 Charlotte screening of the documentary "Fresh, " which chronicles the perils of living in a food desert, areas in urban neighborhoods without access to grocery stores with fresh food.

At the heart of Emmons' nonprofit, Sow Much Good, is her desire to give low income and fragile populations the same access to fresh food as folks who "are not marginalized."

She partnered with three individual organizations last year (Charlotte Rescue Mission, Monarch - where her brother now lives - and King's Kitchen) and about 100 families and provided them with 2,500 pounds of fresh vegetables.

While she still maintains a charitable garden on her own property, a local farmer donated five acres for additional harvesting.

The fruits and vegetables that are grown there are sold at cost in West Charlotte and other parts of the community that don't otherwise have access to fresh produce. She sells the produce rather than give it away because she wants there to be an investment on both sides.

Emmons also arranges for cooking demonstrations and recipe cards so that the community is instructed in how to prepare the food.

Emmons established a learning garden in West Charlotte, housed at Ashley Park Elementary School, that is tended by students, teachers and neighborhood families. She hopes to establish a series of neighborhood farms, in the vacant lots that are so prevalent in poor communities, which will not only produce fresh produce but also will employ residents and teach them the skills they will need to sustain the gardens.

The fact that her brother's diet and health have been vastly improved thanks to his sister's intervention is a testament to Emmons' efforts.

In return, she credits him with serving as her wake up call.

"I want to make a difference in the world," she says, "and I wasn't going to do that sitting in my Dilbert cubicle."