Taking it to the Bank

Taking it to the Bank: A husband and wife team are planting the seeds of a movement to feed the hungry
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The summer sun beats down mercilessly as 57-year-old Susie Honeycutt and 60 teenagers clear the barren field of rocks. One muscular boy’s shirt is so caked in dirt and sweat that the words ”This Is A Job For A Christian” are nearly obscured. With the encouragement and direction of the seasoned high-school teacher, the crew keeps their good humor and energy despite the stifling conditions—aware that their work will grow food for the hungry. “You’re making a difference,” Susie reminds them as they toss rocks into a waiting flatbed truck. The barrage of stones sounds like hail on a tin roof, and by the time the teens are through, three fields have been cleared and are ready for the next stage. “Now, we can plant cabbage,” says Susie. The teens from several Baptist churches across the state are part of an annual workforce of nearly 700 volunteers who plant, tend, and harvest at Fields of Hope. The Mars Hill farm is dedicated to feeding Western North Carolina’s hungry, helping supply Asheville-based MANNA FoodBank, a dozen other organizations, and individual families with much-needed fresh food. The teenagers in the field are told that last year’s harvest put 91,000 pounds of vegetables in the pantries of local soup kitchens, group homes, and other food-delivery sites. “Way cool,” murmurs one listener. Fields of Hope represents much more than tons of produce, says MANNA Communications and Marketing Coordinator Joshua Stack. He explains how Susie and her husband, A.C., “have mobilized the entire community—football players from Mars Hill College come to help, church members, older folks—they’re out there weeding and planting, doing everything that needs to happen.” In the process, they’ve created an entire army of people in the region who are knowledgeable about hunger and willing to fight it long-term, he says. The battle began four years ago when the Honeycutts planted the first seeds on five acres of rich, but rocky, bottomland loaned to them by a relative—a place where Susie grew up. The impetus came several years earlier when Susie, retired from 17 years of teaching English at North Buncombe High School, and A.C., regional manager for First Citizens Bank in Asheville, started taking an inventory of their lives’ accomplishments. “We were blessed with more than we could have imagined,” says A.C.—in health, family, church, and community. The couple had grown up 15 miles from each other in Madison County. They met in eighth grade, and married in 1974 as students at Mars Hill College, raised two children, and had successful careers. Recalling that period of self-assessment, A.C. admits it made them want to give back. When they began researching needs in the area, the problem of hunger struck them hard. “It’s huge,” says A.C. “The statistics are staggering.” According to MANNA, which distributes food to shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens in a 16-county area, an estimated one in six residents of those counties received help last year. This past spring, 47 percent of the students in the nine schools of the Asheville city system were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. And in the 42 schools in Buncombe County the percentage was even higher—50 percent. Community Garden The Honeycutts realized hunger is a problem they were uniquely positioned to help alleviate. As kids who helped on their parents’ farms, they’d both grown up knowing “that special joy of digging in the dirt,” A.C. says. And just as important, they had plenty of managerial experience, the result of years spent dealing with people and schedules in the bank and classroom. Despite their skills, the Honeycutts were looking at a massive undertaking. The farm would be a long-term commitment, taking up large chunks of their weekends and vacations for years to come. The couple knew the success of such an operation would rely on the involvement of many people, and once they announced to their friends that, yes, there would be a Fields of Hope, “It snowballed,” Susie remembers. “People were coming out of the woodwork wanting to help.” High school Beta clubs, 4-H groups, neighbors, relatives—they all came. With such a large labor pool, no volunteer has to work more than two or three days a year. “They get the pleasure out of it, but it doesn’t wear them out to the point that they run when they see us coming,” A.C. says. “Or,” laughs Susie, “take a different aisle in the grocery store.” They had enough machinery to start working, and when a Haywood County family gifted a 1956-model tobacco setter, a local fabricator converted it into a cabbage transplanter for free. They’ve since bought more equipment, using their own money, donations, and a grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Fellow members of Mars Hill Baptist Church have been particularly helpful. The church buys Ingles gift cards at a discount, then sells them to members at full face value, with the difference going to Fields of Hope to buy fuel and fertilizer. Seniors at the church, including Susie’s mother, Peggy Thomas, and A.C.’s mother, Eula Honeycutt, bring chairs to the field when beans are being picked. Those who can pick, do. Those who can’t, sit and strip beans from bushes that the others bring to them. “It becomes a social event,” says Susie. “And we get to harvest lots of beans.” Last September, Mars Hills College’s entire 125-man football squad marched from the campus a half-mile away to dig potatoes. When it came time for the opening prayer, Susie remembers, “They jerked those caps off, A.C. prayed, and then they harvested 11,000 pounds of potatoes in one hour.” “In one hour,” A.C. marvels. A Growing Field For their part, A.C. and Susie divide chores according to their inclinations and abilities. “I can’t drive the tractor,” she says. “But,” he interjects, “there are things she does that I can’t.” For example, she spends hours organizing the phone lists, which she uses to notify volunteers when help is needed. It isn’t unusual to see the couple riding the transplanter through the fields planting young cabbages. Susie’s right there with A.C., both taking their turn before the next volunteers take over the machine. They do try to reserve time for themselves. Susie tends flowers on their deck, but they go to the farmers market for the vegetables in their own kitchen. No family garden for them, A.C. says. That five acres is enough. When they’re not in the fields, the Honeycutts are often on the road, encouraging others to create their own Fields of Hope. They’ll go anywhere to speak to groups, and so far they know of some half-dozen farms being established—one in Virginia, one in West Virginia, several in central North Carolina, and one in nearby Candler. If the model spreads broadly enough, A.C. says, “Then we could really have an impact on hunger.” Lloyd Penley offered the Honeycutts’ old friend, Asheville’s retired Deputy Police Chief Ted Lambert, the use of his 10-acre farm in Candler, and The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina came up with a small grant for operating expenses. He’d had the satisfaction of working on the Madison County farm for two years, he says, and wanted his neighbors to have the same experience. Lambert and friends planted 30 bushels of seed potatoes on two acres this year. “I’m not a farmer by nature,” Lambert says. But he’s beginning to sound like one, worrying in midsummer about a lack of rain. Then, he turns philosophical. Sharing his friend A.C.’s attitude, he says, “We’ll take whatever God gives us, and give it away.”

Who’s Serving

The vegetables that wind up on the plates of the hungry in Western North Carolina have varied origins—from farms planted for the cause, to commercial growers gleaning their fields post-harvest, to backyard gardeners sharing their bounty. Some come from large packers and food chains as well. MANNA (Mountain Area Nutritional Needs Association) FoodBank is the largest conduit from field to plate. Based in Asheville, it serves 315 food-dispensing organizations in 16 western counties, including soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters. In 2009, it distributed 7.6 million pounds of food. It receives produce year-round from large vegetable packers Custom Pak Inc. and Flavor 1st, which both have Hendersonville operations, and from retail partners like Asheville-based Ingles grocery chain and Walmart. It also receives canned and packaged food from a variety of sources. During the summer, MANNA’s fresh offerings multiply, as do its sources. Fields of Hope donates about 70,000 pounds of beans, corn, potatoes, and cabbage yearly, and distributes another 21,000 pounds to a dozen other agencies and families. Farming on land loaned by The Chapel Door in Fairview, The Lord’s Acre donated 3,000 pounds of food last year, mostly to Food for Fairview’s bank. Organizers doubled the size of the organic garden to a half-acre this year. In Burnsville, organic gardeners Ted and Evelyn Baker grew nearly 1,500 pounds of butternut squash for MANNA, then “had some people over and had a harvest party,” says Ted Baker. They’re doing the same thing again this year. And in one of the largest efforts, 26 farmers in 23 Western North Carolina counties invite Society of St. Andrew volunteer gleaners into their fields to pick what’s left after the commercial harvest. Skipper Russell, owner of Seasonal Produce Farms in Waynesville, says “It kills me to see produce go to waste if somebody can use it.” The gleaners, 250 strong, start out picking greens in late April and end the season picking apples after the first frost in fall, says St. Andrew’s local coordinator Bill Walker. Their harvest, plus what they’re given by vendors at tailgate markets and the WNC Farmers Market, totals 300,000 pounds and goes to 80 organizations across the state.

Who's Coming to Dinner?

Among the diners enjoying a hot meal each Wednesday in the basement of Swannanoa United Methodist Church, some are there because the pantry at home is bare. But there’s no way to tell which ones are there because of need, and that’s by design. The Welcome Table, run by volunteers using donations and a small grant, prides itself on opening its doors to all who want to come. “People from all walks of life sitting down with the homeless—this is what I like to see,” says Jackie Kitchen, a Swannanoa resident who for five years has presided over the kitchen with hugs, laughs, and a big stirring spoon. Sadly though, many people close to the issue of hunger in our area say it’s largely an invisible problem. Most don’t realize that the people sitting alongside them in church or living next door may be struggling to get enough to eat. “There are elderly. There are handicapped people. And a lot of children,” says Susan Sides, who manages the charitable Lord’s Acre garden in Fairview. When MANNA FoodBank randomly sampled people receiving food, it found that 33,000, or nearly one-third, are children. And then there’s the MANNA study which found that 36 percent of households receiving help include at least one employed adult. But, says MANNA Communications and Marketing Coordinator Joshua Stack, they face tough choices: “You’re choosing between rent, mortgage, putting gas in your car to go to work, and food.” When churches in Fairview started talking about creating a local food bank more than a dozen years ago, “None of us thought there was a need,” remembers Sides. “It was a small town.” They soon discovered otherwise. The first six months of this year, Food for Fairview, bolstered by fresh organic produce from The Lord’s Acre, served 168 families.

Want to help?

Organizations fighting hunger in our area are in constant need of volunteers and donations. Your assistance can have a huge impact on the people in your community. Fields of Hope, Candler » (828) 775-6428 | majorted@bellsouth.net Fields of Hope, Mars Hill » (828) 768-5149 | honeycuttfarms@yahoo.com The Lord’s Acre, Fairview » (828) 628-3688 | www.thelordsacre.org MANNA FoodBank, Asheville » (828) 299-3663 | www.mannafoodbank.org Society of St. Andrew Gleaners, WNC » (828) 273-0025 | gleanwnc@endhunger.org