Conetoe and Hatteras, NC are separated by just a little over 170 miles. Take Route 64, and it might take three hours to get from one town to the other. Conetoe is surrounded by farmland, but is a food desert, where the nearest grocery store is more than ten miles away. And in Hatteras, while the fish is abundant, fresh produce can be very difficult to find year round—especially when weather makes the one bridge in and out of the island impassible.
The youth of these two communities have come together in an amazing way, and are changing not just the way we think about what we eat, but how we relate to one another.
The Conetoe Connection
Our story starts in Conetoe, a town of barely 300 in Edgecombe County. When it comes to health statistics for those few, the numbers surrounding health are chilling. Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Edgecombe ranks 96th for health outcomes, and 99th for health factors – like social and economic factors. Other numbers include three times the national benchmark rate for air pollution-particular matters, 25% of the community with limited access to healthy foods, and 248% of the national benchmark for eating in fast food restaurants.
But those numbers translated into a whole lot more for Reverend Richard Joyner, pastor of Conetote Missionary Baptist Church, and moved him to action when he arrived as pastor. He paints the picture of his community upon his arrival:
“In my first year at Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church, 30 congregants under the age of 32 years died, almost all from chronic health problems. A health assessment found 65% of congregants were obese, and 10% morbidly obese; 65% were unemployed and uninsured and most lived in poverty.”
Joyner’s work in Conetoe has been profiled before, but it bears repeating. The idea was to start with a garden on the church’s property. Because access to healthy food – even in an area surrounded by farms – was so limited, Joyner knew that changing the health future of his community was far more than just growing good food. In 2008, Joyner was part of a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation healthy eating equipment grant to help get a garden started.
He explains, “The community garden started on land owned by the church, and has grown to five sites in Conetoe, on donated land. We use a bartering system: parents are trained on how to help their children, and they work in the garden, help mentor other families, or carry out other program work.”
The results have been transformative.
“One teen with a long family history of diabetes, lost 100+ pounds, made the basketball team and has been accepted to NC A&T State University – the first in her family to go to college. More than 50 people have lost significant weight and reduced emergency room visits for primary health care; they have a social consciousness, and are taking accountability for their own health in partnership with others. An additional 21 churches have now adopted the Conetoe community garden model for healthier congregations across eastern NC.”
A Day at the Docks Inspires Community Action
But success in Conetoe was just the beginning for Reverend Joyner and his community. The model has worked well across the state. In fact, in 2013, the BCBSNC Foundation used healthy eating equipment grants to provide $90,000 for faith-based communities in North Carolina to establish gardens, upgrade kitchens and bring healthier food into congregations.
That’s where Hatteras comes into the picture. The Conetoe kids had been to Hatteras for the “Day at the Docks” festival, celebrating the work and culture of commercial fishing, bringing with them produce and honey to be used in the seafood throw-down cooking competition. That’s how Hatteras Secondary School teacher Evan Ferguson first found out about the Conetoe story and wanted to empower her students to think about the food in their community in a similar way.
Joyner thought that a food share between the two communities, a kind of “youth food equity exchange” could take his movement a step further. Conetoe kids could work side-by-side with Hatteras kids, many of who live in fishing villages, to teach them about growing produce. And in turn, they’d receive healthy fish to bring back home.
Beyond the Plate
But it’s about so much more than food. “We want to create a way to breakdown racial and different barriers to unite and really build both of our areas in Eastern North Carolina,” said Joyner. “We hope from this meeting that the kids from Cape Hatteras understand that we all are in the same boat, and we hope both youth groups will continue to communicate with each other through social media to build on this partnership.”
The partnership began with a bus full of Hatteras kids and their teacher arriving in the fields of Conetoe, meeting Joyner and the youth of his congregation. Together, they brainstormed what their partnership might look like, and spent the day together putting together a plan. At the end of the day, they traded fish for collards, and went back home.
Now, after subsequent exchanges – the Hatteras students visiting the Conotoe students, and vice versa — the teens are becoming fast friends and making real change. As a mark of their continued progress, the Hatteras students recently received their own healthy eating equipment grant through the BCBSNC Foundation’s partnership with Resourceful Communities.
No matter how different these students are, they are all getting lessons on what goes into a healthy diet and how the role of agriculture can change health and accessibility to food in a community. And they’re doing it together, across boundaries many never break.
Said one student, “I thought it was going to be really hard, but it was actually really fun. I learned even though you might be different, your cultures might be different, when you come together you’re more alike than you realize.”