January 2014 Issue

Bringing About Sow Much Good
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 1 P. 18

A community crusader sets out to make fresh food more accessible.

Imagine leaving a lucrative job in corporate America just around the time of a family crisis, only to discover that your passion for gardening and healthful eating is about to blossom into a fruitful grassroots effort that will meet the dietary needs of thousands of families in your community.

This is the story of Robin Emmons, founder of Sow Much Good, a nonprofit organization committed to growing wide varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables and selling them at a discounted price to families in underserved neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since the inception of Sow Much Good, Emmons has been on a mission to provide access to fresh whole foods for those who are unable to afford them; educate and engage the community to adopt healthful eating habits; and advocate for the right of every person to be food secure—proactive steps that can transform neighborhoods suffering from food insecurity.

Passion to Serve
Emmons has been gardening her entire adult life and has lived a vegetarian lifestyle for the last two decades. And although fresh food always has been her passion, she never imagined it would one day become a full-time job. But after 20 years in corporate America, Emmons decided to leave her job a little over five years ago. She admits the corporate career paid well, but it didn’t fulfill her desire to serve others. In a life-defining moment where two worlds aligned, Emmons’ eldest brother—who suffers from schizophrenia and was homeless on the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina—was being arrested for a public schizophrenic episode as she was leaving behind the corporate life. It was her crusade to save him that ultimately led to the start of her organization.

“It was a moment where I realized I could fulfill a desire to help my brother,” Emmons explains. “After a long process, I got him into a transitional housing facility where his mental health really improved, and he was getting all the services he needed. But at the same time, his physical health began to decline because of all the processed and canned foods he was eating. There was no budget for anything fresh at the facility.”

That’s where Emmons’ venture began. She started donating fresh, homegrown food from her garden to the facility and, like a good idea tends to do, it snowballed. People loved the food. And the housing residents, including Emmons’ brother, were getting healthier. “I began to realize how elitist of a privilege it is to get fresh food,” Emmons says. “People of privilege can access any part of the food chain, while a large segment of the population isn’t getting anything fresh, and they’re dying from preventable lifestyle diseases as a result.”

Sowing Seeds of Goodness
In 2008, Emmons officially founded Sow Much Good as a means of eliminating socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic health disparities that result from a lack of access to nutritionally dense foods. What began as a backyard venture has blossomed into a full-scale farming effort, including 9 acres of farmland and local farm stands within the Charlotte area. Since 2008, Emmons has grown 26,000 lbs of food.

She says the farmland is split into two major portions. A local farmer, who saw a newspaper article about Emmons, donated a 5-acre site. The farmland had been in his family for 100 years, and he reached out to Emmons, expressing his appreciation for what she was doing. The other 4 acres came from local quarry operator Martin Marietta Materials. Emmons says the company wanted to find a way to give back to the community in which it mines.

The produce that Sow Much Good grows is priced between 15% and 40% below what’s sold in a traditional grocery store. Emmons says she can keep her costs down for several reasons. “We grow intensively on a small amount of acreage and produce a lot of food,” she says. “Plus, we have volunteers, not staff. We don’t have all the input that a typical farm would have on the front end. We don’t use pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, all of which are expensive. And we’re in the process of saving our seeds in a seed library and using our own compost and making our own soil. So there’s also not a lot of cost going out the door either. All of these factors allow us to charge much less.”

In addition to making fresh foods more accessible through local farm stands, Sow Much Good offers meals and distributes excess vegetables to those in need within the local community. “In the fall, that meant a lot of kale, collards, and beets,” Emmons says of the in-season selections.

The farm grows other seasonal produce, including corn, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and eggplant. Beehives also are maintained on-site to provide local, raw honey, and the bees help pollinate the chemical-free produce. The farm stands also sell fresh eggs, and the organization offers classes on topics such as canning or home gardening to teach community members life skills they can apply at home.

Vast Need
The need for fresh food has been pervasive. While Emmons says there often is a presumed divide of brown people vs. nonbrown people who make up America’s population, she has found that access to fresh food has been more of a socioeconomic phenomenon across all races. “We’re serving people of all cultures within our community,” she says. “They’re veterans living on a limited budget, elderly people, and young single moms. Many of the people we serve are just working class families trying to make a better life for their children.”

Emmons also is on a mission to help people prevent medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. “These chronic health problems can be greatly reduced through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables,” she says.

While more families now have access to fresh food that they didn’t before, Emmons says her effort is only beginning to solve the problem. Mecklenburg County in North Carolina alone has 60 neighborhoods that need help. “Locally, there are an estimated 73,000 people living in these areas called food deserts, where access to fresh food is scarce or unaffordable,” Emmons says. “We’re growing about eight tons and serving six different neighborhoods, yet that’s still just scratching the surface. Our hope is to secure more land and to have a full-service market for those who have experienced these inequities.”

Multiplied Bliss
There’s no doubt that Emmons’ life looks much different now than it did since she left the corporate world. Although giving up the comfort and security of her career was a frightening prospect, Emmons says she now can say without a doubt that she’s filling the gap she felt was in her life.

“I don’t make any money doing this because everything that comes in through the farm goes right back into the organization,” Emmons says. “But I can tell you that my bliss has been multiplied. I do feel that I’m now living on purpose, and that my legacy when I’m no more will be something more important than a big house or a car or a lot of stuff. Those things don’t mean too much at the end of the day. I’m hoping to leave something bigger behind: the importance of serving those who are truly in need.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.