A team of AmeriCorps members are spending the summer helping Northwest Arkansas hunger relief organizations provide fresh produce to those in need.
Cobblestone Farms, a nonprofit farm in Fayetteville, received an AmeriCorps grant for a team of 11 volunteers to spend 12 weeks working in Northwest Arkansas, according to Executive Director Kelton Hayes.
The farm doesn't need that many corps members working 40 hours a week. So the nonprofit is sharing the workers with organizations that have a similar mission of addressing food insecurity, including the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, Samaritan Community Center, Appleseeds Teaching Farm, St. James Baptist Church Food Pantry and Mount Comfort Presbyterian Church, he said.
Hayes said he believes in collaboration.
"You can go fast alone, but we can go far together," he said. "We know there is a lot to be done in our community, so why would we not work with any other organization that is either specifically working on food insecurity or wanting to make our community a better place."
Corps team members have divided into groups of two and three and are serving three-week rotations at each organization May 5 through Aug. 5, Hayes said.
The corps members are helping organizations during the busiest part of the gardening season and providing nonprofits with the staff to expand their operations in some cases, program directors said. The 11 volunteers are taking on tasks ranging from garden chores -- such as planting and harvesting vegetables -- to helping distribute food.
The helpers are part of the National Civilian Community Corps of AmeriCorps. The federally funded program allows 18- to 26-year-old volunteers to spend periods of 10 to 11 months serving in the areas of energy conservation, infrastructure, urban and rural development, and disaster services, according to an AmeriCorps spokesperson.
The team serving at Cobblestone Farms is based in Aurora, Colo., and spent its first two, 12-week sessions building and restoring homes in Houston to help with recovery from Hurricane Harvey of 2017 and the ice storms of February 2021, said team leader Kara Neal of Great Falls, Mont.
Team members serve 1,700 direct hours as well as 80 individual service hours during their months of service, Neal said. All their expenses are paid, and they receive a small stipend while serving, she said. They also receive an education stipend of $6,000 when they complete their term of service, she said. Some team members are fresh out of high school, while others are college students or graduates, she said.
Neal said she has been working in the gardens at Samaritan Community Center in Rogers. The gardens provide fresh produce for the center's market and cafe, which offer free food.
"Seeing the difference you make in the community has been great, especially when you harvest the food and see people eat it," she said.
Cobblestone Farms has used AmeriCorps volunteers in the past through grants written by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Appleseeds Teaching Farm, Hayes said. This is the first year the farm has taken on the task of writing the grant, he said. While AmeriCorps didn't assign a dollar value to the grant, Hayes estimated corps members will be providing $80,000 worth of labor to the local hunger relief organizations.
Cobblestone leases 25 acres off Wedington Drive from New Heights Church at no cost, Hayes said. The nonprofit uses sustainable and organic practices to raise everything from arugula to zucchini in its gardens, as well as sheep, pigs and broiler chickens, he said. The farm plans to produce 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of food this year to be donated to local hunger relief organizations such as the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, he said. The organization also sells a small portion of its produce through a harvest share program, he said.
Locally and sustainably grown food tends to be out of reach for a lot of families, Hayes said. The nonprofit aims to provide access to fresh, local, nutrient-dense food, he said.
"We believe all community members have a right to have access to the best food they can get, and we feel we have the opportunity to grow that food, specifically for that purpose," he said.
About 13% of households in Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties were food insecure in 2019, according to Feeding America. The organization defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy lifestyle.
While Cobblestone has been around since 2011, it went through a rebranding and reorienting process about a year and a half ago and is now in what Hayes calls the 2.o phase of the program. He believes the land is producing at 40% of capacity and could raise 75,000 to 100,000 pounds of food a year.
The farm has a slim staff, with four full-time employees and one part-time employee, Hayes said. Having the AmeriCorps members allows the staff to focus on building capacity and infrastructure for future seasons, he said.
"If it wasn't for them being here to serve us in this way, we would just be keeping up," he said.
Like Cobblestone Farms, Samaritan Community Center is expanding its garden operation, according to Megan Thomas, garden coordinator. The nonprofit has a garden on one-third of an acre in Rogers that grows organic vegetables, fruits and flowers for its market and cafes in Springdale and Rogers. The markets and cafes provide free food and meals to those in need, she said.
The garden produces about 15,000 pounds of organic produce a year but is moving to a 1.5-acre location on the south side of Rogers, which will allow it to increase the amount of food it grows, expand its reach and provide more educational opportunities, she said.
AmeriCorps members are helping Samaritan maintain its current garden so staff can focus on preparing the new site, Thomas said.
"Partnering with other nonprofits is great because we all have similar missions, so it's really beneficial for us to work together," she said.
Owen Ashley of Beaverton, Ore., joined AmeriCorps when he graduated from high school last year. He said he has enjoyed the volunteer experience and working outside. Assistant team leader Brian Freno of New Jersey graduated with a business degree last year and said he joined the corps to see the country and meet people.
"It's been a really good experience," he said. "I've gained a lot of skills, a lot of life experience and made a lot of good friends."
The corps members are keeping the food pantry at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville from being understaffed during the summer, according to Monique Jones, the church's director of outreach.
The church has a food pantry that feeds about 450 families a week, Jones said. It has a drive-up pantry and delivers food in Springdale, Fayetteville, Farmington, Prairie Grove and Lincoln, she said. It also brings food boxes to all of Fayetteville's public housing projects.
Summer is a great time to have extra help because many of the church's regular volunteers are on vacation, Jones said. Corps members have been helping with tasks such as checking in drive-through clients, data entry, food delivery and cleaning the yard, she said.
AmeriCorps members have been helping the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank with its quarter-acre garden on its Springdale campus, according to Haley Deatherage, garden and nutrition manager. The teaching garden is designed to show people how to grow their own healthy organic produce and produce fresh food to distribute, she said.
Corps members have been planting, trellising, harvesting, and doing pest control and general maintenance work, Deatherage said. They have planted about 100 plants and harvested more than 100 pounds of food so far, she said.
The corps members are part of the Appleseeds Teaching Farm teams, helping with general garden chores as well as harvesting, packing and delivering food, said Cale Nicholson, manager of the nonprofit farm.
"I couldn't do it alone, even with the amount of [community] volunteers we have, it's difficult to accomplish everything that needs to be done," he said.