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The Future of Farming in West Charlotte

By Melissa Biediger | August 22, 2018 | Community Health

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West of Uptown Charlotte, the Historic West End is home to some of Charlotte’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. Anchoring the West End is Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), originally founded in 1867 to teach freed slaves, and now a thriving urban university. Rooted in the tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, JCSU has earned a national reputation for integrating liberal arts with business, science, and technology to offer an exceptional education with a global view.

To achieve this global view, students take a closer look at the world around them – their state, city and the people that they engage with each day. For JCSU, that means recognizing the socioeconomic and health challenges of West End communities and looking for opportunities to make an impact.

Planting the First Seed

In 2013, with support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) and The Duke Endowment, JCSU created the Sustainability Village. The Village and its resources help to address food access issues in the Northwest Corridor of Charlotte. The Corridor represents two zip code zones that have historically low levels of investment and economic growth. Residents face the greatest challenges in health and nutritional disparities and have the highest levels of unemployment when compared to all of Charlotte.

“Through a Community Assessment we saw that food insecurity was a top priority for this area,” said Dr. Philip Otienoburu, Assistant Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Renewable Energy & Sustainability.

“We wanted to create a space within the university to address the issue, be able to include our students in the effort and have a positive impact on the community.”

The Village launched with a greenhouse for seeding production and an aquaponics building that raises tilapia and produce. JCSU also included a hydroponics garden and 23 raised organic beds.

Students are responsible for the daily management of the buildings and plant upkeep. They also work closely with local neighborhoods to promote nutrition education and help develop community gardens.

At first, all of the produce from the gardens was donated to community members. Ultimately, to ensure long-term sustainability and to create value for the food in the neighborhood, JCSU started selling the produce at farmers markets.

In 2016, JCSU partnered with the Mecklenburg County Health Department to launch the Rosa Parks Farmers’ Market in the Historic West End. In 2017, students launched SV Market – a student-run commercial enterprise to help market and sell their produce and tilapia. Each week students staff a booth at the Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market and the Rosa Parks Farmers’ Market. JCSU’s market partnerships also include the Historic West End Initiative and the Knight Foundation for programmatic and financial support.

“The community has been very receptive to the Rosa Parks Farmers’ Market. We recently moved our market to a new location to increase visibility and enhance our product offering by incorporating new vendors,” Dr. Otienoburu said.

“This market accepts SNAP benefits and has a unique program called ‘Double Up Bucks’. Through a rebate program, our most vulnerable customers can double the value of their weekly expenditure up to an additional $80 per month. We are one of only two markets in the area that support this program. Our neighbors have been happy to see our students selling at, and interacting with residents at the market.”

A Lasting Impact

Focusing on cost and energy efficiency, the Sustainability Village relies on hydroponics and aquaponics buildings. Hydroponics systems grow plants in water instead of soil.

Aquaponics is a food growing system that integrates plants and fish. Water and waste from fish tanks is pumped into pipes where the roots of plants are submerged. The plants filter the water by absorbing nutrients. Then the clean water is pumped back into the fish tanks. The fish waste serves as a food source for the growing plants, and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish need.

Both systems are considered more energy efficient and use less water than traditional farming. These systems also allow for more fruit and vegetable production than traditional farming. These methods are clean, natural ways to increase food production.

Plans to Expand

Five years after its first harvest, the Sustainability Village is ready to expand. With a $325,000 investment from Blue Cross NC, JCSU will build new buildings and expand the business to more farmers markets.

The investment will fund two new hydroponics buildings and one aquaponics building.

Johnson C. Smith University faculty, staff, and board members break ground.

“We still face food access challenges in the community, and many people are unable to get fresh, affordable produce within a reasonable distance. With over 160,000 residents in the county living in food insecurity, and 55,000 children experiencing high levels of food insecurity, it is no surprise that upward mobility in Charlotte is ranked the lowest, of the fifty largest states in the U.S.,” Dr. Otienoburu said. “Healthy food plays a central role in development, especially in the formative years, and is closely linked to academic achievement. This investment will allow us to increase access to fresh produce for the community, and offer the food at an accessible price point.”

“Food insecurity impacts one in five children in our state,” said Mike Restaino, District Manager of Community Relations for Blue Cross NC. “The Sustainability Village is as an opportunity for JCSU to showcase to other cities how an urban center can effectively impact food insecurity in their area. This investment could positively affect the health of this community and city for generations to come.”