Residents living along West Boulevard got a sneak peek Tuesday at an ambitious plan to provide fresh food, jobs and educational opportunities for families in that community, which is one of the Charlotte’s poorest.
Known as “Seeds for Change,” the five-year project would culminate with the construction of a 15,000-square-foot, co-op grocery story. But before that happens, the plan calls for building a large-scale community garden that would include aquaponic greenhouses where fresh vegetables are grown and tilapia raised.
The project would cost $5.5 million and could some day employ hundreds of young people who live nearby. Organizers say the big goal is to improve the long-term health, economics of the corridor’s 11,000 residents.
The West Boulevard project is one of many seeking to provide fresh, locally grown food to low-income communities where supermarkets are scarce. Health experts say the lack of fresh fruits, meats and vegetables is a major factor contributing to obesity and other health problems in poor communities nationwide.
This plan was born from necessity.
In 1997, the Charlotte Housing Authority set aside 3.54 acres at the corner of West Boulevard and Clanton Road to attract a badly needed supermarket, but nearly 20 years late, the corridor is still federally classified as a “food desert.”
Local leaders say at least 33 percent of residents (many without cars) are forced to travel more than a mile to reach the nearest grocery store — a new Publix in SouthEnd. Closer food options are limited to corner stores and Family Dollar outlets.
Tired of waiting, a coalition of West Boulevard neighbors, backed by outside support, developed a plan of it own.
This plan also is ambitious.
The project is divided into three phases and could take up to five years to complete.
Phase 1: Later this spring, organizers will break ground on the first greenhouse and outdoor planting beds, employing community residents to help. A long-term governance structure would be developed for the project, and organizers will conduct a feasibility study for the co-op grocery store. (They’ll be looking closely at a Greensboro project called the Renaissance Community Co-op, which runs a 10,00-square-foot grocery store.)
Phase II (2017-2018): Develop “Aqueous One,” a $900,00 learning lab, education classrooms, business incubator, and community/training kitchen. Implement in- and out-of-school learning opportunities designed in Phase I around healthy food. Begin fundraising campaign.
Phase III: Build co-op grocery store (estimated cost, $3,375,000). Continue programming and activities around healthy food. Continue to build relationships with residents and community partners.
Food grown on the property could eventually find its way into a supply chain that includes public schools, corner stores, restaurants and, eventually, the co-op grocery store. Students from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) would be invited in to learn STEM-based farming techniques.
Ricky Hall, president of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, which will manage the project, said his organization has built an extensive network of support that includes CMS, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, Habitat for Humanity, the Charlotte Housing Authority and many others.
Organizers say this project will be locally owned and locally managed.
Hall said Seeds for Change is all about self-help.
“Over the years,” he said, “there have been a number of organizations that have come in saying, ‘We’ve got the solution for you. We know exactly what you need.’ But once they filled that prescription and left, things returned to the way they were.”
This effort, he said, will be different.
“The key to success,” he said, “is going to be sustained support and drive from the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, in conjunction with its partners and partner organizations.”
Raising money will be equally crucial.
Hall said the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition will look to a broad base of potential donors – businesses, nonprofits, local churches and others — to assist in raising the $5.5 million. Wells Fargo has already contributed $75,000.
He said he also hopes that local residents will support the fundraising effort, which may include buying memberships in the co-op.
“We’re going to get there, without a doubt,” he said. “That’s non-negotiable.”