Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Halifax County community partner to improve food security
In a rural food desert, the entire Halifax County community has come together to create the Healthy Harvest Community Garden to help community members receive proper nutrition.
There’s an oasis in a food desert that sits at the edge of Virginia.
Halifax County, home of South Boston, is a sprawling landscape that makes up the fourth-largest county in the commonwealth. But for the residents, there’s a significant lack of a basic access to food.
To combat that issue, the Healthy Harvest Community Garden aims to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to the people who call this region home. And Virginia Cooperative Extension is there to help the garden in its mission to provide nutrition to the underserved.
“The majority of the population in Halifax County lives in a food desert, including many young children, families, and senior citizens,” said Maria Traynham, chair of the Healthy Harvest Community Garden and an assistant with Extension’s Family Nutrition Program. “The garden is bringing the entire community together toward this mission, and we’re seeing the difference it’s having on our community. Access to healthy food and the ability to afford fresh fruits and vegetables are real challenges that ultimately affect the quality of life and their well-being.”
By sharing food from the garden with the community, the group is removing barriers such as the financial ability to afford healthy food. Extension has been part of building relationships and providing more recipes, classes, and resources to empower people with healthy living and lifestyles.
In the partnership, Extension provides free family nutrition courses for youth and adults and lends consultation regarding vegetable production and land management. Master Gardener volunteers also use the garden to provide educational classes to the public on a smattering of garden-related topics.
Using a sustainable model to grow and distribute produce for those who otherwise may not have access to affordable, nutritious food, the Healthy Harvest Community represents a collaboration between individual volunteers and organizations. That enhances the general health of the community by sharing the harvest with others, enabling them to enjoy fresh food, and providing opportunities to learn about general health and well-being. This collaboration was born in 2017 with the help of Sentara Health and the Virginia State Office of Rural Health.
Now, five years later, the 10,000-square-foot garden served 269 adults, 308 seniors, and 265 youth in the area last year through a community-organized distribution model that involved Extension’s Family Nutrition Program assistants, Master Gardeners, members of the community, local churches, and more – all to get the 5,773 pounds of produce in the hands of those who need it.
“Having these community partners help with the distribution increases the reach and effectiveness of the garden,” said Bill McCaleb, a program assistant and Master Gardener coordinator with Extension as well as the vice chair of the garden. “Because of their help, combined with that of donors, we are able to have the garden itself grow this year.”
With a recent $10,000 grant from Farm Credit of the Virginias, along with additional support, another 10,000 square feet will be added to the garden in 2023 as well as a distribution center. In 2022, more than $57,000 was given to the garden by community partners, including Sentara, Hitachi Energy, Abbott Farm Suppliers, Town of Halifax, Town of South Boston, Virginia State Office of Rural Health, Microsoft, the Halifax Farmers Market, and the South Farmers Market.
Each year, the garden provides opportunities for high schoolers to intern. After working 85 hours in the garden, they earn a $600 scholarship to help with college expenses. The internship program is funded by grants from Sentara, Virginia State Office of Rural Health, the Town of South Boston, and the Town of Halifax.
So far, 30 youth have successfully learned and helped those less fortunate in the county to eat more healthily and to broaden their spectrum of vegetables and recipes. In return, youth learn a trade and give back to the communities they call home.