Twelve years ago Laurl Abel decided to change the way she ate.
Little by little, her diet became healthier, and today she’s a vegetarian who loves fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables.
Laurl said many people who are “poor,” like herself, can’t afford to frequent high-end grocery stores offering organic produce with price tags higher than a cable bill.
“It’s too expensive to shop commercially, but for health eating fresh vegetables and fruits is essential,” this 33-year-old, single working mother of two said.
She discovered a solution. One that anybody on a budget and wanting a healthier lifestyle can achieve.
Her 8-year-old daughter began volunteering at Fairview’s welcome table, where on Thursdays during lunch, people can get a great meal at the Fairview Christian Fellowship Church.
This is how Laurl learned about The Lord’s Acre, a farm in Fairview dedicated to providing those in need with literally tons of fresh produce, items they wouldn’t get at some charitable food pantries, where the groceries are often prepackaged, boxed or canned.
According to studies, nearly 30 percent of children younger than 18 are “food insecure” at some point during each year in Western North Carolina, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. To me, that’s outrageous.
Pat Stone, editor of GreenPrints in Fairview and chairman of The Lord’s Acre board, said the idea for a community farm arose three years ago, when a group of people decided to stop talking about hunger and do something about it.
“It was a simple idea that has grown faster than zucchini in July,” he said.
During the three years since The Lord’s Acre first tucked a seedling in the soil, hundreds have volunteered and more than 17 tons of organic food has been grown and given away, much of it to the Food for Fairview, serving those who might otherwise go hungry.
“Everything from peas to watermelons has been given,” Stone said. What’s left goes to other agencies around town, including the Veteran’s Restoration Center.
“These groups are finally able to give their clients healthful food that doesn’t come out of a can or a box,” he said.
In the past year, one of every six Western North Carolina residents reportedly received food assistance. More than 15 percent had times when they didn’t know when their next meal would arrive.
Teaching as well as feeding folks
While The Lord’s Acre provides a bountiful garden of foods, it also inspires and teaches people to plant their own gardens as a way to eat well without spending a fortune.
Anyone can come and learn. Many church and school groups spend time tending the garden, located on several acres of fertile Fairview soil the nonprofit leases.
The real surprise, though, is that most of the food is grown from a half-acre of land, that one area bringing in the 17 tons of produce during the past three seasons.
The Lord’s Acre is a community hub that connects volunteers working to grow organic food for those in need and offers gardening and food-skills training to all ages.
“People who work here are impressed as much by the community as by the garden,” said Susan Sides, executive director and garden manager. “People here get to know and help each other as well as grow food.”
Franklin Sides, Susan’s husband and also co-manager of The Lord’s Acre, said plans are in place to expand.
“We want to get into growing more fruits and berries,” he said. Sides is also Gerton’s postmaster, but puts in 20 hours a week at the garden. “Some people are more likely to eat berries than a carrot.”
Just last year, The Lord’s Acre yielded eight tons of vegetables and fed 75 families in Fairview. Another 80 to 100 people show up weekly at the Welcome Table, a dining experience based on donations, no matter how small.
“They use white tablecloths, real plates and have a really good salad bar (most items from The Lord’s Acre),” Sides said.
Growing more healthful meals
Laurl Abel is one of four families who will have a plot in the garden this year.
She calls herself “poor and struggling” but has created a unique plan in which she can work, home-school her children and attend nursing school.
She decided to team up with her best friend, another single mom, and together they share the parenting and household management, along with expenses.
“At least one of us is home during the day instead of paying for daycare,” she said. “It works out pretty well.”
It’s important to Laurl and her roommate, Jessica Criste, also a mother, to feed their children healthful meals.
“We didn’t want our kids growing up not knowing what a tomato tasted like,” Laurl said. “We really believe in feeding our kids vegetables instead of fast foods and processed stuff.”
In exchange for Laurl and Jessica’s spot in the garden, they also volunteer working the main garden. In exchange, they receive the nutritious bounties of the harvest.
“You can feed your kids’ bellies with a $3 box of Cheerios or fill their bellies with vegetables,” Laurl said. “It can be done. You can grow food for pennies of what it costs in the grocery store.”
Eating from the earth has improved Laurl’s health. A former sufferer of allergies, migraines and “feeling horrible all the time,” she now says her health and energy levels are excellent.
She recommends those just learning about gardening to start off with baskets of soil and seed.
“Start your own little garden,” she said. “Anyone can do it. Go to Goodwill and get huge baskets and fill them with soil then put them on the porch. Start small and grow into it. Involve the kids, too.”
‘It’s picture perfect’
For Pat Stone, the biggest surprise about starting the garden is how fast and how many people have pitched in.
“I think all of us want to help, we just don’t know where to start,” he said. “The Lord’s Acre lets everyone help each other. This garden is as much a blessing for those of us who work here as it ever is for those who receive its produce.”
Nedra Wilson, a volunteer, said she’s inspired by how the Sides’ can grow more vegetables per square foot than most people.
“It’s filling a basic need,” Wilson said. “It’s picture perfect and just incredible.”
The next step for The Lord’s Acre is a campaign to raise $275,000 to buy the land they are leasing.
When the land is bought, including a generous land donation upon full payment, The Lord’s Acre will have 5 1/2 acres on which to expand and provide more families with its bountiful offerings.
Susan and Franklin Sides said the entire concept is about providing food, education and community bonds.