Initially conceived as an agricultural education space for the University and Chapel Hill community that would produce seeds for marginalized farming communities abroad, Hope Gardens quickly developed in to a community space with a local purpose. In the fall of 2008, students from UNC’s HOPE (Homeless Outreach Poverty Eradication) committee of the Campus Y developed Hope Gardens as a tool for social justice right here in our community: a transitional employment program for homeless individuals and an inclusive community garden, each meant to facilitate relationships and dialogue among the student, homeless, low-income, and broader Chapel Hill communities in a “side by side” work environment.
With advocacy from the Active Living by Design committee of the Town of Chapel Hill and design assistance from the NC State University Department of Horticulture Science, Hope Gardens partnered with the Chapel Hill Department of Parks and Recreation and settled into the 14 acre green-space on Homestead Road in the summer of 2009.
Structured as an all-inclusive program to provide job training and work experience to unemployed and underemployed individuals in the Chapel Hill area, the Garden originally strove to break down barriers to employment and to connect participants with social and professional networks, long-term employers, and fellow gardeners. During the Summer of 2010 Hope Gardens hired its first transitional employees. Over the course of the summer, we learned new things about our participants, ourselves, and numerous ways to adapt and refine the program. In particular, we realized the need for more organizational structure; as students, we encountered countless obstacles in our new-found role as ‘employers’.
Following the pilot summer, the entirely student run staff got to work. The bountiful summer of 2011 allowed Hope Gardens to recognize a local need within the community: food access. We learned through conversations with members of our local homeless and low-income community that healthy lifestyles are actively desired, just not easily accessible. After many different trials of trying to plug our produce in to the community, the idea for a reduced price Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was born. The goal of this program was to combat the barriers of both access and affordability for our neighbors desiring fresh produce. The unique experience of managing a business, social venture, and working urban farm gave students the opportunity to grow and develop.
In 2013, Hope Gardens revised its strategic plan and in February launched Hope Cooks, a project that links their produce to those that need it most. This community cooking/nutrition class brings together UNC-Chapel Hill students, Mujeres Avanzanda hacia Nuevas Oportunidades (MANO) participants, and Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) members for a weekly participatory dinner. Participants help prepare the meal (centered around Hope Gardens’ produce), and learn tips for cooking on a budget in the process.
Hope Cooks participants engage in a casual cooking session where every participant contributes ideas, suggestions, and even critiques throughout the meal. All participants eat the meal they cooked for free. At the end of each class, our participants receive a bag of the Hope Gardens produce that was used in the meal as well as the recipe for that meal. This produce gets weighed and bagged at the end of Saturday workdays. The class takes place in the University Methodist Church’s certified kitchen.
Just like our garden, we’re constantly growing (and learning!) as an organization. Recognizing and addressing food access in Chapel Hill-Carrboro has been an enormously rewarding experience, and we look forward to doing even more in the community in the future!