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A youth-led program in Charlotte's West Boulevard neighborhood combats food insecurity

Three Sister Farm and Market - group picture.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
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Teens gather on Nov. 19, 2022, at the Three Sisters Farm and Market in the West Boulevard Neighborhood to help tackle food insecurity in the community.

A youth-led program called Seeds for Change was started six years ago to tackle food insecurity in the Charlotte West Boulevard neighborhood. The group provides residents access to fresh local foods while teaching teens about agriculture, job opportunities and exposure to various career options.

According to Mecklenburg County, about 15% of households are considered food insecure, meaning they lack access to affordable and healthy foods because of a shortage of money and resources. Abdalla Abdalla, 14, is one of the teens at Seeds for Change. He said the program offers more than farming skills.

“It really gives me a chance to interact with more people who have the same goal or mindset as me,” Abdalla said. “Where I can achieve the goal to where I want to be a real estate agent, so I can help other people get homes.”

Demario Baker was in search of fresh produce for the holiday at the Three Sisters Farm and Market.

Demario Baker - Three Sister Farm and Market.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Mason Olonade (far left) cropped out a fresh batch of collards for Demario Baker (right) on Nov.19, 2022.

“I want to get some fresh greens for this Thanksgiving to cook with my family,” Baker said. “It’s just great to be able to get something straight from the earth, straight from the root.”

Accompanying Baker at the farm was his wife, Tia Baker. She couldn’t wait to share what she was picking from the farm and how it would benefit her.

“I’m so excited,” Baker said. “I have collard greens; again, this is important for me because I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat. So, the fact that I’m getting locally grown collards from these students that participate in this program, it’s not just putting soil down and watching it grow. They’re out here, literally, nurturing it. To me, I feel like that is important.”

Tia Baker - Photo.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Tia Baker is pictured crouched on the farm with a set of collards from the farm in her hands on Nov.19, 2022.

Mason Olonade is the farm manager and oversees the program. He said it’s essential that residents have access to healthy food.

“It cannot be understated how important it is because there are no grocery stores over here within a mile of where we are,” Olonade said. “There are no grocery stores, and there hasn’t been one for 40 years.”

A 2015 report by Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council revealed that the West Boulevard Corridor (N.C. 160) between Billy Graham Parkway and Interstate 485 was one of three areas identified as high-risk communities for food insecurity because full grocery stores are scarce.

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Olonade said nothing compares to fresh, locally grown produce.

“When you make these collards, when you eat these peppers, when you taste the honey, you can taste the boulevard, you can taste the community, there’s nothing like that,” Olonade said.

The Seeds for Change program is a part of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition. The nonprofit organization works to improve public health and economic development for West Boulevard corridor residents. Olonade said the program enhances the community.

“People like to see their communities vitalized, right? and have food that is revitalizing, right?” Olonade said. “By growing all of these different things … we’re bringing all of this life to a piece of land that has been vacant for many, many years.”

A big part of the program is mentoring teens who earn a salary or volunteer at the farm. The quarter-acre lot is across the street from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in the West Boulevard neighborhood. The teens are exposed to financial literacy, marketing and entrepreneurship.

The farm just closed for the winter but will reopen in the spring of next year. For now, the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition is working on a cooperative grocery store designed to serve over 19,000 people in the community year-round.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.