Urban Farming Org Transforms 9 Empty Greenhouses to Tackle Food Insecurity and Grow Meaningful Jobs
January 2, 2017 | Vanessa Caceres
When Lynchburg, Virginia resident Paul Lam’s beloved garden was destroyed inadvertently in 2003, residents rallied around him to find a new space. With the help of community members, Lam, who is disabled, eventually found a seven-acre site with nine empty greenhouses on it that had been the home of a large rose supplier.
The farm site needed a bit of rehab, so a call was put out for volunteers. Hundreds showed up from local area schools and universities to help clean it up. From this community outpouring for Lam, Lynchburg Grows, a nonprofit urban farming organization whose dual mission is to increase access to healthy food in the community and provide meaningful jobs to individuals with disabilities, was born.
Lynchburg Grows cultivates 54 raised beds that grow tomatoes, greens, and the occasional specialty item. The raised beds are 90 to 100 feet long and 3 feet wide. They are of varying depth–some are about a half-foot deep for lettuce and others are deeper for root veggies. The organization can grow greens year-round and is especially known for its spring mix, says Farm Manager Shelly Blades. Items that fare well in the heat, such as okra, grow prominently in the summer. The greenhouses are neither heated nor cooled, and that affects what they can produce at certain times of the year.
Much of the produce grown in the greenhouses is destined for distribution to the residents of Lynchburg, a designated food desert in which nearly 24% of the population lives in poverty and where 18% of residents are not sure where their next meal will come from, says Blades.
To help further alleviate this food insecurity, in 2015, Lynchburg Grows in collaboration with Live Healthy Lynchburg launched a mobile produce delivery service called Veggie Van. The van now makes deliveries to 10 locations in the city, three days a week, and through a partnership with USDA SNAP program accepts WIC and EBT card payments. Lynchburg Grows leaders worked with area churches to map out the places most in need of healthy food access.
In addition to selling affordable produce via the Veggie Van, Lynchburg Grows also supplies about five area restaurants, and maintains a summer CSA with about 90 members and a winter CSA made up of approximately 40 members. Any leftover produce is donated to local food banks and homeless shelters.
Although there’s an interest in higher quality food among Lynchburg chefs and residents, the foodie scene in town is not as developed as in bigger cities. So, Blades and others on staff often find themselves introducing “designer veggies,” such as Hakurei turnips. Blades became familiar with such specialty items while working as a garden coordinator for Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City before coming to Lynchburg about a year ago.
She feels that the farmers and staff at Lynchburg Grows should relish their role in educating others—be it top area chefs or everyday residents—about produce items as it solidifies their role as a food and nutrition resource in the area.
Lynchburg Grows employs 11 people, three of whom are full-time. All but two employees live with disabilities and came to Lynchburg Grows from local placement agency, Stand up, Inc., which specializes in vocational training programs. Some of the employees are in wheelchairs, while others have Down syndrome, or are capable of performing farm work, but have trouble with logic. Job coaches from the placement agency often work beside them. The jobs that they do include caring for plants, bagging lettuce, and cleaning. “We like to find what works for one person and help them become an expert at it,” says Blades.