Robin Emmons, founder of Sow Much Good, surveyed her farm acreage for the produce that will feed the underserved population in Mecklenburg County. Emmons will share her story this week with East Carolina University Honors College students.
By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, March 1, 2014
A Boston native with 20 years experience in corporate bureaucracy who moved to North Carolina and fed hundreds from her backyard garden provides food for thought, as well as for hungry stomachs.
That is what Robin Emmons has accomplished since being moved in 2008 by the plight of her underfed neighbors in Mecklenburg County.
Emmons will visit East Carolina University at 6 p.m. on Wednesday to speak to students in the Honors College leadership series on her involvement with her nonprofit, Sow Much Good, and the fight to alleviate nutritional deficiencies in low-income areas.
Sow Much Good has grown more than 26,000 pounds of food since its inception. The produce is sold at reasonable costs at SMG markets in urban food deserts, areas in cities where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Free classes on healthy eating, cooking and gardening also are offered.
Emmons, named a “CNN Hero” for everyday work that changes the world, was employed at a mental health agency in Boston before settling in Charlotte in 1992. There, she worked for the Goodrich Corporation, then as a banking analyst at Bank of America’s small business finance division.
She lived for a long time in an illusion of success within her corporate world, where attention to anything other than the bottom line was unacceptable, she said. But visits to see her brother, who suffered from severe mental illness and poverty shook her conscience.
“I felt conflicted and fraudulent and compelled to begin anywhere to change and do something different,” Emmons said. “That literally turned out to be in my own backyard.”
Emmons dug up her backyard and turned it into a vegetable garden. For a while, she distributed the harvest to churches in poor and working-class Charlotte neighborhoods and to the transitional housing center where her brother lived. After nearly a year of hodge-podge food distributions driven by what she called a myopic sense of urgency, a friend suggested to Emmons that she might have more success at her goal of helping hungry people if she set up a more sustainable production and distribution system.
“She suggested that I start a nonprofit, which became Sow Much Good,” Emmons said. “That 501 (c) 3 status legitimized me and made it possible to get grants, in-kind donations and volunteer support. I was able to scale up from being just me in my backyard.”
Initially, volunteers and donations came from corporations that heard about Emmons’ activities and the things she was saying at her growing number of public appearances about the consequences of food inequities.
“I was telling them that this is everyone’s problem, but addressing their sense of compassion didn’t get results, so I decided I would talk to their wallets,” Emmons said. “If I can’t get you to empathize with people in your city from a human standpoint, then let me talk to you about the financial impact of poor people going to emergency rooms for health care because of poverty-driven illness. Guess who is subsiding that?”
After a few of those talks, she found herself with a volunteer army. Since then, Sow Much Good has enlisted volunteers from local YMCA chapters, school groups, senior citizens, and, most importantly, she said, from individuals in communities throughout Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Sow Much Good now has a nine-acre urban farm and market located in Charlotte’s northwest corridor, growing affordable, chemical free produce for people living in urban food deserts or neighborhoods otherwise identified as “food insecure.”
The farm features seasonal produce, bee hives to help with pollination to provide local, raw honey to customers. Fresh local eggs also are available at each market and additional staples are planned as the site is further developed, Emmons said. State nutritional food program payment formats are welcome at the market.
Sow Much Good is now providing more than food to people in Charlotte.
“We’re hiring people directly from the community to work the acreage around the market and the farm stand, creating an economic base and circulating the money directly among those neighborhoods,” Emmons said.
While most her attention has been focused on the phenomenon of urban food deserts, Emmons has been turning the talk to rural food disparities, such as exist in eastern North Carolina.
“Food deserts are much more prevalent in rural communities, where mid-size and small farms have gone away due to centralized farming,” Emmons said. “There are no transit systems in rural towns for people to hop on a bus and get to a grocery store. While that option might be an inconvenient way for me to shop in a city, it doesn’t even exist in rural communities, and people are suffering greatly as a result.”
The adverse results of resource disparities become entrenched in communities and entire regions, in the form of generational poverty and poor health leading to less longevity, she said.
“I think it is shameful and painfully embarrassing that in a country that has long held itself out as the land of plenty, a significant and growing portion of the population can go without things that are so fundamental,” Emmons said.
Emmons said she sees great potential for her empowerment model in eastern North Carolina.
“I think many of the ingredients that make us successful in Charlotte are available here, but you have to find them and connect,” she said. “It’s about building relationships with people, then we can take on the policy-makers.”
Contact Michael Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9571.