Creating an oasis in a Southern ‘food desert’

Many low-income Americans lack easy access to fresh, healthy food

CNN News Wire | 9/13/2013, midnight
For more than a decade, Robin Emmons felt helpless as her older brother lived on the streets, eating out of ...
Robin Emmons has grown more than 26,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to help more than 72,000 people in Charlotte, North Carolina who lack access to fresh, healthy food. Emmons estimates that her fruits and vegetables are about half the price of organic produce sold in stores.

With her 1,000-kilowatt smile and boundless energy, some might call Emmons a goodwill ambassador for healthy eating. She’d claim that her produce — from cucumbers and okra to watermelon and blueberries — can sell itself, but her enthusiasm certainly doesn’t hurt.

“Everyone’s been excited about the string beans,” she says to one customer. “How are you going make yours?”

She strives to make her food as affordable as possible. People are also able to use their food stamps to purchase anything she sells, including seeds and seedlings so they can grow the food themselves.

Emmons and her volunteers distribute recipe cards, too, and urge customers to attend the group’s free cooking demonstrations and canning classes. It’s all part of their mission to help people take control over what they are eating and improve their health.

And customers seem hungry for all that Emmons and her group are offering.

“We’ve been really, really thrilled about the response from the community,” Emmons said. “Even as early as January of this year, they were calling, asking, ‘When are you coming back out?’ “

Brandy Bolin says she was a junk-food junkie for much of her life, until she was diagnosed with diabetes six months ago. She immediately vowed to make eating healthy a priority for herself and her 11-year-old daughter. But because she is unemployed, waiting for her disability to come through, it hasn’t always been easy.

“We try to eat the best we can, but we often have to cut corners,” said Bolin, 38. “Sometimes, that means picking the $1.49 mac and cheese over $5 worth of vegetables.”

Since Bolin discovered Emmons’ produce stand this summer, she has visited nearly every time it’s been open.

“I couldn’t believe all the beautiful, fresh vegetables, and the price that she was charging was phenomenal,” Bolin said. “It’s making me and my family healthier.”

Keeping this enterprise going is a labor of love for Emmons, who spent years doing it for free before recently taking a small salary. But she said the work has reconnected her to ideals and interests she’s had her entire life.

Emmons didn’t have a lot of money growing up in Boston, but her parents often drove 30 miles to make sure the family had fruits and vegetables. That commitment to healthy eating carried over to adulthood, when she started gardening in Charlotte.

“There was lots of trial and error,” she said. “But I was fascinated with the miracle of watching seed drop into the ground and see it flower and grow fruit. It was satisfying.”

Emmons also has become a certified beekeeper, so local honey is now available at her stand. And her new CSA initiative — Community Supported Agriculture — delivers boxes of fresh produce to families every week.

She has attracted local support for her nonprofit, including a local farmer who taught her to drive a tractor and lets her grow food on his land. In August, she opened a permanent farm stand on land donated by North Carolina-based corporation Martin Marietta, and she plans to open an educational center there where she can hold classes and events that promote a healthy lifestyle.

Eventually, Emmons would love to expand her organization across the country, combating food deserts wherever they exist. For now, she’s devoted to helping Charlotte residents.

“When I see people coming to the farm stand ... I feel encouraged,” she said. “I feel like I am giving them a gift — a healthier, longer, better, more delicious life.”

Kathleen Toner | CNN