Access to fresh food changing this Edgecombe County community for the better

CONETOE, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Rev. Richard Joyner looks over these fields in southeastern Edgecombe County with a measure of satisfaction. A lot's been accomplished here.

"You'll have the broccoli, you'll have the cauliflower, you'll have the blueberry," Joyner said. "Blessings come in strange packages."

This "package" is the Conetoe Family Life Center, a 25-acre community garden and nonprofit now generating thousands of pounds of produce annually.

Students do much of the work.

"I mean, it's fun and useful once you get used to it and know what you're doing," said 16-year-old Tationa Hyman.

Some of the produce is sold, some given away. Proceeds are re-invested.

Some of the seedlings in the greenhouse will be transplanted to the fields once they become mature enough, including lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers in what has become a major operation."

It all came about 12 years ago when Joyner noted with increasing alarm the number of premature, preventable deaths in his community - often tied to poor eating habits.

"If I've lost five or 10 family members in their 40s and they would live to be 80, how do you replace the human capital, the economic capital and just the social capital?" he said.

Conetoe, in one of the most economically challenged areas in the state, was a food desert -- with limited access to fresh, affordable, nutritious food.

And now, what Joyner's church started here as a summer youth project on two acres of donated farmland has blossomed into a major fresh-food resource for the community.

But the focus is still on teaching young people.

"We want to see you guys be able to leave here this summer with a very healthy consciousness around how you produce products, how you put products on your plate, how you put products in the market, and how you re-invest," Joyner told students.

And the lessons are getting through.

"How to manage high cholesterol and how to manage sugar, and blood pressure. Stuff like that," said 16-year-old Sha'zire White.

Joyner said he is conducting far fewer funerals these days. Emergency room visits have dropped off. And the youngsters are seeing their knowledge -- and their scholarship accounts -- grow.

"No longer food desert," Joyner said, "to an oasis of food."
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