Growing up, we didn’t have much in a household made up of my mom, my brother and me. Even though we lived in the city, in Los Angeles, we always had a small garden in the back where I helped pick peas, string beans, tomatoes and green onions. No matter how small the size of the garden, it was a family event planting, growing and harvesting on our own. My brother and I were city kids that learned to appreciate fresh food. To this day, I rarely eat junk food because it simply wasn’t a part of my upbringing.
More than 50 million Americans live in food insecure households. When I founded Grow Appalachia in partnership with Berea College in 2009, I was hoping to address to the problem of hunger in America but realized that the issue wasn’t simply a lack of food. The way people relate to food – the way they purchase it, prepare it and consume it – is the real problem. The current food stamp system keeps people dependent on cheap, low-nutrient food.
Hunger in Appalachia has been the focus of government intervention for years – the very focus of Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty initiative in the 1960s – and people today still are unable to buy their own food. There has to be a better way for Americans to have access to healthy food.
Education is the biggest challenge for the people we’re working with in Appalachia, and I believe it’s the biggest challenge facing the food insecure across America. Both hunger and obesity exist side by side throughout Appalachia, in just about every county. Today’s hunger is often perpetuated by low-nutrient, cheap processed food that ultimately results in raised healthcare costs that contributes to our nation’s overall deficit. Our broken system keeps people dependent on unhealthy, sometimes scarce, food when we can help people instead to depend on themselves.
So how do you begin to teach people to take control?
There is a real loss of institutional and familial knowledge in Appalachia that makes it hard to teach people to garden. For generations, people throughout the hollers worked their own land and grew their own food. That tradition has been lost as people even in rural areas depend on fast food, food banks and gas stations for the majority of their food for their families. The availability of unhealthy cheap food destabilized the local food system. The relationship with the land and proud tradition of food has all but disappeared.
When my foundation director was in the field with one of our Grow Appalachia gardeners, she ate a bean right off their plant and congratulated them on the flavor. The woman was surprised to see the bean eaten fresh and said she never knew you could eat a vegetable right off the plant.
Grow Appalachia is changing the way people throughout rural Appalachia relate to food. In the past 3 years, thousands of program participants through 25 partner sites in five states have grown over 574,000 pounds of food. We work with existing social structures – 100 year-old missions, a domestic violence shelter, schools, a veteran’s organization – and provide the basic tools to help people grow their own food and become their own solution to food insecurity. These trusted partners provide canning classes, gardening workshops and help build high tunnels for more efficient production.
The main goal is getting people as close to their food source, and in charge of their own food systems for as long as possible. Introducing more food to the area solves the basic problem of a supply of high-quality, fresh food, but it’s not enough to just have more food. People have to be invested in growing their own food, saving seeds and growing organic to keep soil healthy.
Individual households have saved about $1,000 in grocery bills in a growing season. A 1-acre garden at Jackson County Detention center saved $5,000 in food costs in one season and introduced better food and work experience to inmates.
In the Coffey family garden in Jackson, Kentucky, five generations plant and harvest together, growing together, sharing old techniques as well as new ones. Money is being saved, families are sharing and teaching with other families and people are feeding themselves.
A huge part of the problem with hunger is getting the right food to the poor but also encouraging them to be a part of their own solution. Given the right tools, participants have started businesses and sold canned salsa and honey and squash and eggs at farmer’s markets. They are not only feeding themselves but also helping to nourish their communities and grow their local economies.
We believe the people in Appalachia, the people of America, can be the answer to food insecurity. We are seeing it happen every day. We hope that families we work with will no longer have a need for food stamps. Grow Appalachia is a two year program that gives people the tools they need to grow their own food for a lifetime.
People often ask why I do what I do or how they can help be a part of it. I answer both questions by saying, “success unshared is failure.” Every American can do something with their time or money to help make their community, state, country or world a better place.
If you have resources, shop at a farmer’s market and be a patron to a local family farm or say no to eating endangered seafood.
If you can, start a small garden in your backyard. Help your neighbor start a garden.
We can help protect our ecology and waterways and help people to have access to fresh food. It’s all connected. We are all connected.
• John Paul DeJoria is Founder and Chair of JP's Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation. He co-founded Paul Mitchell in 1980 and helped turn it into the world's largest privately owned salon haircare company.
• This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.