It’s been 40 years since Frances Moore Lappé first sounded the alarm about a revolutionary and plant-based approach to eating, and since then, farmers, educators, and the public have embraced farmers markets, community garden programs, greater access to healthy food in schools, and the growth of community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives.
Torch bearers for food education like J. Eric Mathis, Courtney Branch, and others at Crossnore School & Children’s Home continue the march in the fight for healthier, fresher food for all but particularly for Crossnore youth, the disadvantaged, and those with compromised health.
“Our purpose is to foster entrepreneurship, build curriculum for students, and build a community network for farms and healthy foods to connect beginning with soul-to-soil relationships,” says Eric Mathis, co-founder of the Miracle Grounds Farm & Network.
Crossnore is doing its part to make a difference to ensure its students are connected to the “living soil,” as well as educating the surrounding community about the benefits of eating fresh local foods produced organically in nutrient dense soil.
And the Miracle Grounds Farm on Crossnore’s campus is aptly named: It’s a true miracle of sorts that an urban farm in the city is not only living but thriving.
From students who learn that soil is alive and dirt is dead, to the Karenni refugees from Myanmar who work in the student garden and sell to local farmer markets, to the recipients of the “prescription vegetables,” the farm is a game changer; a long-term vision for transforming Winston-Salem into a productive “edible city” made up of a network of urban farms and gardens.
A tour of the 100-plus acre farm reveals a food forest, a soon-to-be soil lab, a fresh food prescription garden, a sunflower field, and a student garden.
At the heart of the farm and gardens is education about living soil. First stop is the dye garden; flowers and herbs grown for use in making art in the Soil-to-Arts initiative for students on campus, as well as across Forsyth County. Indigo, marigolds, madder, and other flowers bend in the breeze and show off yellows, purple, pink, and other colors that will end up as art-on-canvas or other mediums in DIY classes such as a recent Arts-to-Soil pilot with Southwest Elementary where students created dye from plants for a local art installation.
“Nature teaches us resilience in many forms,” says Courtney Branch, farm coordinator. “Part of our mission at the farm is to embed these lessons and reconnect kids and the community back to nature and food. One way is by hosting virtual webinars based around permaculture, arts-to-soil, and food.”
Senses are stimulated in the food forest where the learning garden calls out to “touch and taste” some of the finest figs, strawberries, blueberries, and other edibles that grow alongside pollinator plants like lavender, daisies, Echinacea, and others.
Mathis points out the soil lab in the middle of construction and its role in educating students.
“Soil makes you happy,” he says. “It stimulates the release of serotonin, so there is a reason people benefit from digging in the dirt.”
A few feet away lies the fresh food prescription vegetable garden. Here the Karenni people have put on their entrepreneur hats and formed the Bloom Collective. Through this cooperative enterprise, they grow vegetables for the Fresh Food Rx initiative, local farmers markets, and restaurants. The HOPE (Help Our People Eat) initiative distributes the food that the Karenni workers harvest from the prescription garden. Operating like a CSA, the program feeds about 65 people weekly.
The student garden is the newest edition to the farm. The garden benefits from a community partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina and the assistance of two full-time and one part-time employee from Second Harvest who work to harvest food that’s used at Crossnore.
Education that flows out to the community is a part of every experience at the farm.
A soil-to-food culinary class contributes to Winston-Salem’s annual city Christmas dinner that feeds over 1,000 participants as a part of Miracle Ground’s Story of the Plate initiative. At the NCWorks Career Center of Forsyth County, students learn how to press sunflower seeds grown on the farm to make sunflower oil. The oil is also converted to biodiesel that fuels the tractors on the farm to create real-world examples of what Mathis calls a “circular bio-economy” or a “restoration economy.”
“This land was once a dairy farm,” he says. “We are trying to return to that time and approach to the soil by growing bio nutrient food in rich, living soil. As the anchor garden for the community, we are literally creating soil to build resilience for the children and families on the campus and the larger community. Simply, it’s about connecting to the very thing that connects all of us — the soil, the food, and the people who consume it. [After all], the only difference between souls and soils is U and I.”
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