In his first year as pastor at Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Conetoe, North Carolina, Richard Joyner performed 30 funerals.
That’s a remarkable number given that the hamlet’s population hovers around 350. Even worse, most of the sickness and death Joyner witnessed among people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s was rooted in preventable diseases. A doctor friend from an area hospital, where Joyner served as a chaplain, told him that more than 90 percent of the maladies literally killing his flock were treatable health problems.
“This is not the way it should be,” Joyner lamented.
When Joyner arrived in Conetoe (pronounced “koh-NEE-tah”) more than 20 years ago, he found a community devastated by poverty. Today, poverty and unemployment remain huge issues, but community spirit is stronger. That spirit is largely rooted in the way families from the church and the community have come together to respond to one of their greatest challenges: living in a food desert.
The U.S.D.A. defines food deserts as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” In Conetoe, the nearest grocery store is an eight-mile walk away.
For the last 15 years, community members have looked beyond the region’s needs and capitalized on its principal asset: land. They’ve put over 35 acres into cultivation and started a revolution in how residents eat. The results are seen today in both improved physical health and what scholars call “social capital” — and what residents label more simply, “neighborliness.”
Overcoming the Legacy of the Land
Conetoe sits on the eastern edge of Edgecombe County. Edgecombe has the highest rate of diabetes of North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to state data, and it ranks 96 in overall health outcomes. Average household income sits at just $21,000. The rural community is predominantly Black, though an increasing number of Hispanic families have moved in in recent years. The county’s substantial economic challenges have deep roots in racism and oppression.
When Joyner reached a point of despair over the community’s entrenched poverty and ill health in 2005, he wanted to run away. But he remembered his father’s example and he asked God to show him a way forward. He felt like God told him to open his eyes and look around. And what Joyner saw was untilled farmland.
The vision was unwelcome.
Joyner resisted because he had grown up dirt poor with 12 siblings, sharecropping alongside his mom and dad. The labor was hot, brutally hard, and the earnings meager. While the crop was in the ground, Joyner recalls, it belonged to his dad. “Once it reached the market it changed names,” Joyner explained in a 2017 interview with National Public Radio. “The profit of that product never really came back to my father, back to us, on the farm.” The injustice rankled bitterly. At age 18, Joyner vowed he’d exit eastern North Carolina and never return. The army provided his way out.
But here he was, decades later in Edgecombe County, and God was showing him a way forward.
Joyner visited a biotech center at a nearby university. Somewhat to his chagrin, they told him that growing healthy food on unused land was indeed a plausible solution to his community’s ill health. They helped him draw up rough plans for a summer program engaging youth in agrobusiness. Joyner identified an untilled two-acre plot located roughly a quarter-mile from the church and contacted the owner, who turned it over for the church to use.
Joyner announced the new summer initiative from the pulpit of Conetoe Chapel, but he admits that he hoped no kids would show up. Almost 100 arrived.
Looking back, Joyner remembers that first summer as “tremendous.” “Our kids fell in love with growing food,” he told a podcaster a few years ago. The campers and their family members consumed the vegetables grown that first year, and the next year a larger harvest gave the young farmers a chance to deliver produce to some of the elderly citizens in the area. Joyner recounted to Modern Farmer how one woman was so overcome with joy and gratitude, that she kissed the kids. “That was the first time in a long time I witnessed anybody speaking a blessing over our troubled children,” he said.
Reimaging Food and Farming
Some adults in Joyner’s flock, though, were less enthusiastic. Those with painful personal memories of the legacy of Black oppression were leery of sending their children and grandchildren into the fields. Joyner emphasized that the youth would be working, not for someone else, but for themselves and their loved ones.
He also stressed the health benefits of having locally grown produce in light of one simple, if painful, fact: that the tiny community of Conetoe was not going to get a grocery store.
Joyner started what he called “Healthy Sundays,” wherein once per month he or a friend of his, a nutritionist from East Carolina University, would preach on topics related to healthy eating.
These messages not only deepened the adults’ understanding, they convinced kids in the congregation that the deaths of elders they cared for might have been prevented by lifestyle changes. A cadre of teens followed Joyner in learning how to grow and prepare healthy food. Teens like Tobias Hopkins, who told Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership magazine that he watched two uncles and a cousin, all under age 50, die of strokes. The younger congregants respected Joyner’s holistic ministry. He taught them that “spirituality is not complete until it reaches the whole person,” and then he modeled the conviction by throwing himself into practical efforts to address poverty, substandard housing, and poor health.
In 2007, Joyner established the Conetoe Family Life Center as a sister nonprofit to the church. Its official mission statement is to “improve the health of the youth and community by increasing access to healthy foods, increasing physical activities, and providing access to health services.” Joyner told it to me in February in slightly different words. “At the end of the day, how do we make every home a better place for children to grow up in, a community where seniors can retire, and we can all live healthy?”
Joyner says the land — despite its association with past oppression — can have spiritual significance. He told Faith and Leadership, “The garden is a beautiful, spiritual sanctuary that we play in, eat in, educate in, and change our lives in.” He himself has experienced God’s presence and healing in the verdant fields.
The earthy yet spiritual sanctuary has expanded steadily since the initial two-acre plot. Other landowners have donated parcels up to 25 acres. Farm manager Martina Lopez reports there are more than 35 acres under cultivation in two main locations.
The farm has received donated equipment and enjoys a steady stream of volunteers. Vidant Edgecombe Hospital invested $2,000 in the center’s inaugural year. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) contributed $15,000 in 2007. A donation from the Futrell-Mauldin Foundation for Greater Rocky Mount enabled the center to purchase its first tractor. And a variety of grants have helped to underwrite the center’s summer camp and college scholarship program.
Joyner also gifts his salary from the church to the Family Life Center. And he’s donated a number of cash prizes he’s received from groups recognizing his work, including a $25,000 award from Encore.com. The center’s current executive director, Helen Collins, estimates that 20 percent of its budget is raised through sales at farmers markets and through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.
From the outset, Joyner has used the farm as a mechanism for teaching science, math, and life skills alongside growing kids’ practical knowledge about food and nutrition.
The flagship program has been an eight-week summer day camp for kids of all ages. Instructors are a mix of local professional teachers and student-teachers. Indoor lessons in science and math are focused around a weekly, farm-related theme. Out in the fields, kids apply their math skills hands-on to various tasks like calculating yields or measuring seeds.
The summer program enables attendees to grow food that helps reduce the family grocery bill. Collins says their goal is to cut household grocery expenses in half. Earlier this year, the center gave some 500 baby chickens and turkeys to local families, along with feed and instructions on how to care for the birds. The chicks were donated from individual farms around the mid-Atlantic region that have bought into the center’s vision. One of the center’s nonprofit partners from adjoining Nash County trains recipients in the safe processing of the poultry. The end result for local families is access to fresh, healthy meat.
Overall, about 50 percent of the farm’s produce is marketed. Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist provides storage and a kitchen where kids prep the veggies for farmers markets. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s CSA program had close to 200 subscribers. The other half of the fresh produce was given away.
Joyner rejoices in how the center’s youth participants are learning about even more than math, science, agriculture, and nutrition. They are experiencing how good it feels to be contributors. “It’s good for these kids to grow veggies and deliver those to senior citizens,” he says. The affirmation they receive from grateful neighbors “touches the soul of these children.”