Everybody has to eat, but not everyone eats well.
Everybody has to eat, but not everyone eats well.
It’s hard to not want that late night craving of Taco Bell, or have a couple appetizers while drinking at a bar in the Fan, but have you ever looked down at your plate and really wondered where the food comes from?
ReNew Richmond, a non-profit organization whose initiative is to provide people with access to good food, engage the community in agricultural training, health education workshops, and entrepreneurial skills so they can feed themselves, has been instilling these values since it started in 2009. They have successfully engaged more than 2,000 residents in Southside and the program fits squarely within Mayor Dwight Jones’ health and food policy initiatives including: health and wellness education, green job creation and training, and increased access to healthy nutritious food.
Duron Chavis is the Director of Community Engagement for ReNew Richmond.
“I develop and build sites. I work with community members and I also facilitate projects if a corporation or organization wants to do some work and set it up. I’m basically like the project manager… We’re part of the food system, so we’re always thinking about how we can connect to other institutions or organizations so that things are better functional in a more optimal and efficient way.” He’s also a dad and the founder of Happily Natural Day, a yearly festival he started 12 years ago which is dedicated to holistic health, cultural awareness, and social change, and coordinates the McDonough Community Garden, which was the first community garden he started.
“We run five sites, which are two school gardens, one for George Wythe High School and one for G.H. Reid Elementary School, two community gardens, and a three-fourths acre demonstration farm. We grow food there and give it to food pantries and churches which go to their food programs or congregation or community. We’re selling some of it, but we just got funded to start a commercial urban farm, which will be off Midlothian Turnpike,” Chavis says.
This urban farm was funded, for a mere $10,000, through a KivaZip loan with donations from the community. The $10,000 will go towards buying two hoop houses for year round farming, organic soil for the urban farm, lumber for 40 raised beds, and drip irrigation equipment to water the crops efficiently.
Currently, they’re funded through grants and charitable contributions. Chavis explained how their projects are funded through corporate sponsorships, or through resources that they have come up with on their own.
Overall their mission is really to help people learn more about the food they eat and where it comes from. “ReNew Richmond’s mission is to send kids healthy food access and teach the community how to grow their own food, not only for nutritional purposes but for entrepreneurial purposes as well,” Chavis says. Their goal is to build urban farms and gardens to give urban communities access to fresh veggies and produce.
“It’s not going to get anybody rich,” Chavis admits. “But it’s definitely a way to reconnect people back to the planet,”
Chavis is gearing up to start selling the food locally with the commercial farm, through local community members, and restaurants, which will hopefully work with them to sell them through bigger institutions, he’s even got his eyes set on hospitals and school systems. “We want to showcase a model and implement people in the community and show them how to be entrepreneurs,” Chavis says.
This wasn’t Chavis’ original path. He never saw himself doing something like urban farming or connecting communities. It was because of his yearly festival, Happily Natural Day, where he first got inspired.
“I kind of backed into this… The farmers loved what we were doing, but they asked why aren’t you talking about where food comes from? So that’s when we started down this road.”
Chavis says he’d never planted anything in his life until that point. “When we started this it was basically trial and error.”
This lack of background is the biggest challenge Chavis has been figuring out; learning what works and what doesn’t.
He also described that being their biggest strength, because you learn from the experience and speak clearly about it without any doubts. “We learn with the people, we learn with the community. The pain of messing up is one of the best learning tools,” Chavis says.
Besides that, the funding and time they put in is another challenge they face. Chavis believes in the community, and is very passionate about everything they’re doing. “We’re a small non-profit, we don’t have a staff, so we’re doing this out of the passion of our hearts, and I’ve been blessed I’ve been able to integrate my full-times into this in some way to make it fit. That’s where the challenge is within myself.”
Despite economic hardships, Chavislooks to his children for inspiration and knows he’s instilling a strong work ethic into his kids. “Getting [my kids] to come out, work, and have lifelong experiences is very important to me. They helped me build these beds. That makes a world of difference.”
This Saturday, June 14th, Chavis and John Lewis, the director of ReNew Richmond, will be speaking at Community Dig RVA, discussing their mission.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased through Eventbrite, which can be found through the link here.
The Happily Natural Day Festival is also coming up, August 8th-10th, which you can learn more about here.
Chavis explains the long running festival has plenty to offer for those interested in the urban farming movement. “We’ll have a farm school there to teach people how to start a whole urban farm, because the whole thing about this is it’s about social justice. People are unhealthy, they’re faced with all types of diet related illnesses. We have a great time and everybody has to eat, but it’s really important for people to understand it’s connected to a larger movement and it’s holistic.”
Chavis hopes that people will embrace these ideas, and take something personal away from the experience. “We create and build the gardens for the people to try and teach them how to grow food. This is connected to the environment. We need to get reconnected to our food source and where it comes from.”