When refugees began arriving in Chapel Hill from Myanmar around 2007, they struggled to cook unfamiliar American vegetables and hungered for traditional foods that would keep them culturally connected.
Families who continue to arrive from Burma are just as eager to access familiar foods. But today, they know where to find them. The Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, founded in 2009, grows close to 80,000 pounds of food a year, including more than 40 traditional Asian herbs and vegetables: Studded yellow bitter melons, lime leaves and lemon grass, pretty pink shunkyo radishes and orange-middled turmeric.
To the 36 refugee families growing food here and many more who enjoy the produce, being able to cook traditional crops into their version of “soul food” is emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.
“Folks have been through a lot in leaving their countries, living in the camps, getting resettled. There’s a strong desire for community connectedness and cultural cohesion,” says Kelly Owensby, Transplanting Traditions’ project director. “The farm is a space where they feel they’re back home.”
Refugees transform farm produce into traditional soup, thick with turkey and vegetables. Or pennywort salad, a mix of vitamin-rich pennywort leaves, tomatoes, onions, lime, garlic, roasted peanuts and a sugar-lime fish sauce.
“There seems to be this idea of traditional food being filling in a way that is not just about feeling full,” Kelly says.
Packed into boxes for 140 CSA members and sold at farmers markets, the produce is an important source of income for the growers. But the farm also provides invaluable psychosocial support for refugees who can sometimes feel isolated, and a sense of well-being to those farmers who also work long shifts at multiple jobs.
“They work 24/7,” says 17-year-old Tatha Hso of his parents as he blends pennywort leaves into juice for a demo at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. “The experience to be able to relax, get some fresh air and farm – it’s like a passion for them.”
“At school we learn about what culture means and food always comes up,” Tatha says. “Food is the background of any culture. It shows who you are.” –Jennifer Brookland
In the barn at Benevolence Farm, Brooke Mann is sorting Sun Gold cherry tomatoes into pint baskets. “I sowed and planted them, and now I’m picking them,” she says. “I didn’t used to like tomatoes, but I eat them now.”
To her right is a big stack of cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with cucumbers, shishito peppers, squash, green beans and the tomatoes. Later in the day, Brooke and others will drop them off in Chapel Hill, Burlington and Durham for CSA customers who’ve signed up to receive the farm’s vegetables.
Brooke, 33, is the field manager here; her job is to make sure the plants are thriving. She’s also a former inmate of the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, and this farm, located just west of Chapel Hill in Graham, is her first stop as she transitions back to regular life.
Helping Brooke and women like her find their footing is Benevolence Farm’s mission: it’s a place where they can live and be supported as they map out their next steps. “We’re using our collective resources to connect them with their goals,” explains executive director Elly Goetz. “Every resident has different needs.”
While they figure out their plans, the women work on the farm, taking on roles like greenhouse manager or packhouse manager that give them some responsibility over the two-acre farm’s output. Those jobs are necessary, but they’re also therapeutic. Getting out of prison can be disorienting, says farm manager Matt Ballard, and feeling needed can counter that. “That way, the women don’t feel lost,” he says.
Benevolence Farm is still very young; the first vegetables were planted last year, and the first residents arrived in December. Currently, only two women are living in the house on the property, which can sleep up to six; the farm’s staff members plan to bring more in gradually. Meanwhile, a big swath of land was recently cleared that will practically double the farm’s production; Matt says they’ll begin seeding it with fall crops.
Brooke is moving forward too: she recently got a job working at a local domestic violence shelter, taking her first steps toward real independence. But she’s still working on the farm on a daily basis, looking after the plants as she herself grows stronger. This place, she says, “gives me a chance to breathe. And it’s something to get me up and going again.” –Amanda Abrams
The average seven-year-old doesn’t usually dream of sinking her teeth into a fresh radish or gooseberry. But for hundreds of kids served by TABLE each year, the food they receive isn’t just a way to fill their tummies, but a way to expand their minds. “Food insecurity can be missing meals, but it can also be not having consistent access to healthy foods,” says executive director Ashton Tippins. “That can really shape their food tastes.” TABLE’s bread and butter is making sure kids have healthy food to eat on weekends and during the summer, when school lunch programs stop and kids are left vulnerable to hunger and poor nutrition.
Pallets of peanut butter, Annie’s organic mac and cheese, fruit cups and other food donations pour in from Weaver Street Market, just a few blocks away from TABLE’s new, nearly 2,000-square-foot space in Carrboro, and from Durham’s Farmer Foodshare, UNC Newman Catholic Student Center and various community businesses. TABLE expects to bring nutritious food to 650 food-insecure kids this coming school year.
To reshape their palates and show them what’s possible, TABLE also takes kids on field trips to nearby farms and dairies and invites little ones to inventive programs like SnackChef. There, they learn to make nutritious snacks with ingredients they may have never tried before, like pineapple, feta cheese or pomegranate seeds.
Of course, the kids enjoy cooking on their own terms. Like the girl learning to make “ripped roll-ups” who chucked the directions and stuffed the whole-grain tortilla, cheese, arugula and mustard inside a sweet red pepper, grinning as she took a giant bite. A 2016 survey of participating families showed kids involved in SnackChef were more willing to try healthy food and also ate healthier.
Now in its tenth year, TABLE continues to add programming including Camp TABLE, a summer camp for other budding Chapel Hill foodies who learn about nutrition and food issues and spend time volunteering to bag food for their friends and classmates. –Jennifer Brookland
Photography by Briana Brough