Johnson C. Smith University will use a $325,000 grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina to expand an outdoor laboratory where students grow organic produce for distribution in west Charlotte.
The school’s Sustainability Village was created in 2013 with a dual purpose – to serve as a teaching tool but also to address a scarcity of fresh produce in parts of the city’s Northwest Corridor. The village includes a greenhouse, an aquaponics facility where tilapia are raised, and a hydroponics garden that grows a variety of organic vegetables without soil.
The Blue Cross NC grant will be used to build two additional hydroponics facilities and one additional aquaponics facility. As a result of the expansion, production capacity at the facility will be increased by more than 400 percent, the school said.
“The Sustainability Village is an important step toward addressing food insecurity in West Charlotte,” said Mike Restaino, a Blue Cross NC district manager of community relations. “Improving the health and well-being of North Carolinians in West Charlotte is a goal JCSU and Blue Cross NC share, and one that sets an example for communities across the state.”
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-Charlotte), who attended Wednesday’s groundbreaking, said more than 160,000 Mecklenburg County residents live in areas where fresh meats and vegetables are scarce. About 15 percent of those residents, she said, are children.
“As a mother and grandmother, it hurts to know that there are children here in Charlotte who go to bed hungry every night,” Adams said. “There is a lot that happens around the world that we can’t control. We can’t stop earthquakes; we can’t prevent droughts; and we cannot prevent all of the conflicts. But when we know where the hungry and homeless and the sick are, then we can help, and we should help.”
Much of the food harvested at Sustainability Village is sold at the Rosa Parks Farmers Market on Beatties Ford Road or distributed to local shelters.
Tami Simmons, JCSU’s vice president for institutional advancement, said that aside from addressing immediate food needs, Sustainability Village also is about education and research.
“It is all about teaching our talented students how to produce healthy food, how to relate to the community in doing so, and then actually how to be profitable,” she said. “So it really is a 360-type of educational opportunity.”
Simmons said students involved in the program are mainly science and business majors.
Brenda Montanez, a junior majoring in biology, said she plans to apply to medical school after graduating from JCSU and eventually work as a pediatric surgeon. Montanez said she believes her work at Sustainability Village is helping her prepare for that goal.
“It definitely gives me exposure to how to grow healthy and how to eat healthy,” she said. “I think it’s important for college students to know what they are putting into their bodies. It’s also a great way to get parents exposed to what they should be eating or how healthy options are available.”