Conetoe, a small town of just 287 people, is located in rural northeastern North Carolina, in a county that is home to extraordinary natural resources and landscapes, as well as devastating poverty and unemployment. It also ranks among the lowest in health outcomes of all North Carolina counties.

After officiating more than 30 funerals in one year for people under the age of 32, mostly for chronic health problems related to obesity, Reverend Richard Joyner of the Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church decided it was time for a change. On Sundays he started preaching about the importance of good eating habits. He wanted to serve healthy food at church events, but there were no grocery stores for miles around. So he took matters into his own hands and started a 2-acre community garden to "grow their own."

The centerpiece of the Conetoe Family Life Center (CFLC), the garden has now grown to 25 acres and is managed by 64 youth who participate in free afterschool and summer day camp programs. They plan, plant, pollinate and harvest produce that they bring home for healthy meals and also sell at tailgate markets, farmers markets, a (new) mobile farmers market and even urban restaurants. They also have a “bee bus” with dozens of beehives that are used to pollinate the crops and produce and sell honey.

Our Role

The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program provided a small grant through our Creating New Economies Fund to launch CFLC’s garden; additional support in 2014 helped take the work in Conetoe to the next level. We helped CFLC strengthen its programs by providing organizational development, crop planning and marketing support. We also connected Reverend Joyner and CFLC’s staff, youth and volunteers to funding, information, and agencies and nonprofits that are providing other support for the programs.

For example, we helped CFLC  connect with high school students from our partner commercial fishing villages on Hatteras Island for a “youth food equity exchange.”  The Hatteras students have limited access to healthy produce so they learned how to create and maintain a community garden. The Conetoe students have limited access to healthy North Carolina seafood, so they learned about commercial fishing.  They shared a seafood and produce lunch, and will continue to exchange healthy food and friendship in 2015.

We also helped bring national attention to Reverend Joyner’s work by nominating him for the 2014 Purpose Prize. He was one of six national winners to receive the award, which was coupled with $25,000. For an organization that operates on a shoestring budget, this funding will go far.

Why This Project Matters

In this small town, the community is healing itself with the land. The Conetoe Family Life Center has already shown an improvement in people’s health, which is being documented by East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine. Families and youth are losing weight and eating healthier. Youth are motivated, active and involved, and they are inspiring the community to make lasting changes.



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