CONETOE, North Carolina — An hour east of Raleigh, lies the predominantly African-American community of Conetoe — population 300. The town is surrounded by farmland, but the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away, making it one of the country’s many “food deserts,” where fresh, nutritious food is not readily available.
But during the last decade, it has become the center of a movement for healthy living, driven by the Rev. Richard Joyner, a local pastor. It’s an effort Joyner started after watching many of his parishioners die from preventable diseases.
“Diabetes, high blood pressure — when we first got started, we counted 30 funerals in one year,” Joyner said. “I couldn’t ignore it because I was spending more time in funerals than anything else.”
So Joyner started a community garden and enlisted local children to help him care for it. Today, his nonprofit, the Conetoe Family Life Center, manages more than 20 plots of land, including one 25-acre site.
More than 80 young people help Joyner plan, plant and harvest nearly 50,000 pounds of fresh food a year. Much of this produce is given away to local residents. But the students also sell the food — including their own brand of honey — to businesses and restaurants, raising money for school supplies and scholarships.
The children also learn how to cook the food in a nutritious way, steering their families toward better choices at home. As a result, many people are now reaping the benefits of Joyner’s ideas. Emergency room visits are down, and the community as a whole is healthier.
Joyner also feels the efforts are bearing fruit in a way that’s harder to measure.
“Growing food calls us to work together,” he said. “By nourishing plants, you’re nourishing community. It’s one and the same.”
CNN talked with Joyner about his work and the impact it’s had on his life.
CNN: Young people are really involved in this effort. What are they learning through your program?
Richard Joyner: One of the biggest things the youth are learning here are social skills — how to relate to each other and have healthy relationships.
They also get to practice skills like science and math. For instance, we have a strategy room, where we determine what we can plant. So we use math to figure out: “If you have a 40-pound bag of potatoes, and you slice each potato up into seven different pieces, how many pieces can you get out of there? How far apart should you plant them, and how many rows is it going to take?”
They also learn about pricing, marketing. If we just let them explore and create a safe space for them, most of the time they’ll come up with an answer for themselves. And when youth become creative, wow — they think outside of the box.
CNN: Is their work with the bees an example of this?
Joyner: Oh yes — it was their idea. I really didn’t want bees; I just thought it was an added risk — but I got outvoted. But the bee operation has really been phenomenal.
Mr. Hines, a master beekeeper, said, “I’ll give you one hive if you go through the training and become a beekeeper.” And I said, “Oh, great, they’ll never do it.” But they went through the training, and 12 became certified beekeepers.
So we started with one beehive. Now, we’re up to 150 hives that make 5,000 pounds of honey a year. We have a bee bus (an old school bus), and we take it to different fields and pollinate them. The honey is sold in stores and restaurants — some as far away as Raleigh — and they become store reps; our youngest is 12 years old. They are really passionate about it. It’s opened another door for them.
CNN: How did you first get the idea to start a garden?
Joyner: I was literally exhausted from the funerals, and I was asking God, “What are we going to do?” And I really heard a voice saying, “Look around you.” I looked around and there was nothing but land.
Now, I didn’t like farming, and I almost paused and said, “Is there anybody else up there I can talk to?” But it was almost like my eyes opened up, and so that’s what we started doing.
CNN: Why didn’t you like farming?
Joyner: I didn’t have a good experience with the soil growing up. My family, we were sharecroppers. We grew up eating from the garden. But it was more of a process of pain. I can literally see this guy getting out of this pickup truck, telling my father that he didn’t make any money for the year. It was so painful to watch my father be oppressed, to watch him walk away with nothing. That’s why I did not like the land.
When I came back to the land, I had to deal with my anger. And I’m still coming through that process. But for me, working in the garden has been a healing place. This has given me the opportunity to appreciate what my father took pride in teaching me about the fields. At this point now, I like the garden. It’s a place we can play. It’s a place where we can produce. And it’s a place where we can live.