In many parts of the south, a common way to add flavor to vegetables is to sauté them in the fat and drippings leftover after cooking meat. Renderings from ham and bacon give vegetables a salty, buttery texture that many southerners have grown to love. But with chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and obesity affecting a growing number of people in this region, Vivian Lucas, executive director of UCC-affiliated Franklinton Center at Bricks, thinks it's time to make some changes to these traditional cooking techniques and bring awareness to the importance of healthy diets and lifestyles. Starting with kids as young as 5, Franklinton Center's Just Food Project aims to do just that.
"We are trying to create healthy eating habits among kids who live where food has traditionally been available in limited varieties and then also prepared in unhealthy ways," Lucas said. "We want to help develop skills so kids can make healthy decisions in their lives about food, food preparation and making healthy choices in the future."
The Just Food Project began at the Whitakers, N.C.-based conference, retreat and educational facility in 2012 and, through a partnership with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, aims to support the community through initiatives that enhance the viability, vitality, and sustainability of families, small farmers, and economic development projects. The Just Food Project services Edgecombe County, one of the poorest in North Carolina and the second largest food desert in the United States, and its surrounding communities. The project has grown significantly in the past year, such as expanding the center's garden from one acre to five acres and hiring a full-time gardener, and Franklinton Center is embarking on a three-year vision plan that will incorporate ways to grow the program even further, Lucas said.
A main focus of the Just Food Project is to provide families with fresh, organic produce grown in that five-acre garden. Targeting families with children ages 5 through 12, the Just Food Project has provided fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 75 families throughout the community so far this year. In addition to providing the produce, the program also offers cooking classes to teach children how to prepare it in healthy ways. For example, they encourage the use of olive oil instead of fat or grease for cooking vegetables, and suggest experimenting with different herbs and spices instead of large amounts of salt and butter to add flavor. The facility has anywhere from 25 to 65 kids participate in the classes each week, and many of them show their parents what they learn when they return home.
"People are becoming more open," Lucas said of different cooking styles. "Cultural diversity creates a greater opportunity to cook in different ways and use flavors and herbs and spices that people haven't thought about traditionally. The whole idea is to change the way people eat at earlier ages."
The program also aims to highlight the connections between food and overall health. For the residents of eastern North Carolina, access to health insurance is scarce, so it's up to the individual to keep themselves healthy, Lucas said. She adds that good health is also an important contributor to keeping people active in the workforce, which benefits the economy and the larger community.
"It's all related," Lucas said. "We want people to get radical about understanding that people are making money off of their sickness."
Another focus of the Just Food Project is to help local farmers be sustainable contributors to the local economy. Franklinton Center works with about 10 local farmers who meet at the facility monthly to discuss ways to stay relevant within the larger local and regional food systems. They receive training on how to produce food safely and efficiently, how to produce year-round instead of just seasonally, and how to get their food into local markets and schools. Franklinton Center also hosts a regular farmers market that offers items produced by the local farmers.
"African American family farms are very scarce now," Lucas said. "We want to continue to strengthen the relationship of the local food system and make sure small farmers can compete in a system that is very difficult for them to get into."
Cleevester Wilkins is Franklinton Center's full-time gardener. In addition to maintaining all five acres, he also gives children tours of the gardens, answering endless questions about the plants, and their different varieties, and what they are called. He can feel the enthusiasm as the children experience new things and knows the Just Food Project is making a difference in their lives.
"They were just excited about it all," Wilkins said. "They wanted to eat the snap beans, the Queen Anne's peas. A lot of children don't eat squash, but these kids loved it. We are introducing them to new things and new ways of eating."