By Olivia Neely Times Staff Writer
United Tobacco Company employees knew they wanted to take on a project that not only gave back to the Wilson community, but also helped those in need at the same time.
A couple of months ago, they built four large raised garden beds and planted a variety of vegetables. And the garden has taken off, said Kathy Brown, controller at UTC, located on Stantonsburg Road.
“Things are starting to bloom,” Brown said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. We will have things to harvest soon.”
UTC has partnered with Hope Station’s food pantry. Everything that’s grown will go directly to the nonprofit each week.
“It will be a weekly thing as we get the different items harvested,” Brown said, adding that employees will deliver the vegetables. “The employees have been so excited about it.” Brown said they chose Hope Station after reading about the group’s work in The Wilson Times, including providing healthier options for clients who visit Hope Station’s food pantry each week.
“We thought it would be great to contribute fresh vegetables with that,” Brown said.
UTC employees are growing an array of veggies, including squash, radishes, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots and a variety of bell peppers. They are also growing tomatoes and different types of spicy peppers as well as basil.
“We are starting small,” Brown said. “We are trying to do it all organically, too.” The Rev. Linda Walling, Hope Station’s executive director, said she was excited when she received the call from Brown about the project.
“With our recent conversion to a pantry in which clients make their own food choices, the fresh vegetables and fruits are very popular,” Walling said. “These additional contributions will enable us to provide a great quantity of nutritious foods to those who visit the pantry. I think I am speaking for the clients when I say we are very grateful.”
TEST RUN Employees planted a garden last year as a practice run before committing to grow food for a charitable organization.
“We didn’t know how well we would do,” Brown said, adding that they wanted to ensure they got things right and keep the promises they made in delivering the fresh vegetables. Brown said the employees learned a lot and tweaked the project a bit.
“We scaled it down to something we could manage,” Brown said. “It might be small, but we can give it the attention it needs.”
And this year’s garden has proven to be the perfect space and amount of plants needed to truly make a difference in the lives of Wilson’s hungry. UTC employees have also put together a system that captures rainwater to use in watering the garden and its plants.
“We’ve got the watering system together,” she said, including soaking hoses so the garden is constantly watered.
COLLABORATIVE EFFORT Walling said one of the priorities of the Wilson Food Network is to increase the number of corporate gardens in the county that would make fresh produce available to groups that feed the hungry.
“Bridgestone was the first last summer,” Walling said. “The effort was so successful in its first year that the decision was made to double the size this year.”
The Wilson Food Network is a collaborative initiative among various organizations, churches, businesses and government agencies that meet each month in an effort to tackle issues regarding hunger and food insecurity in Wilson County. The group has made tremendous strides since its inception two years ago.
“It’s very exciting that UTC has now decided to do this as a service to the community,” Walling said. “The vegetables they gave us this week were beautiful and immediately snatched up by the pantry clients.”
Walling said the sunny land with water access that surrounds Wilson’s corporate and manufacturing areas are perfect for starting corporate gardens. “Employees stopping by for a little while after work or on their lunch hour to tend the gardens, coupled with volunteers from the community, can help make a difference in our community’s ability to help those who struggle to put food on the table,” she said.
BEING PART OF THE SOLUTION Brown said she and other employees didn’t know about the growing problem of hunger within the community until they began working on the project.
“This is a really big problem in the county,” she said. And by doing their part to help alleviate that problem and giving the needy healthy options drives them each day with the project. “It feels good to be a part of that,” she said.
Nearly one in four people don’t know where their next meal will come from, according to local and state figures. Nearly one in three Wilson County children suffer the same fate. Brown said UTC’s mission is to educate, demonstrate and promote health and nutrition along with self-reliance, entrepreneurship and teamwork through its employees, enabling the business to become a resource for community outreach.
UTC is owned by a large group of farmers, Brown said. She hopes that the community garden idea its employees implemented will be a catalyst for others in the Wilson community. And maybe even more partnerships could form.
“We have a lot of property,” Brown said. “We have the resources to make this bigger as far as land goes. If other companies get involved, we could make it as big as we wanted it to be. It could really go places.”
FOOD INSECURITY AND OBESITY The juxtaposition of high food insecurity rates and obesity is something community leaders often discuss. More children now suffer from obesity, which fuels other health problems including asthma and diabetes.
But those on tight incomes are more prone to buy processed foods because they are much cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, officials said. Officials said since 1980, the cost of fresh foods has increased by 40 percent compared to a 40 percent decrease in cost of processed foods during that same time period.
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