A Glimpse Into an Oasis Feeding UNC Housekeepers and Their Families

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Carolina Community Garden has provided nourishment for more than a decade to multiple generations of families, many of whom are Burmese refugees

Carolina Community Garden
Louis Hallet, 8, and his grandfather, Jean-Noël Hallet, who was visiting from France, spend the afternoon gathering lettuce.

By James Dupree | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Even in 40 degree weather, around a dozen volunteers have come to help tend the Carolina Community Garden. Some volunteers start by uncovering the low tunnels containing various winter/spring vegetable crops so that they may soak up the sunlight. Others begin mixing compost for organic fertilizer or harvesting spinach, collards and kale. Meanwhile, a large group of volunteers drill holes into oak logs, hammer small plugs inoculated with mushroom spores into the holes, then cover them with a mixture of cheese wax and mineral oil. In anywhere from 9 to 18 months, the logs will be covered in shiitake mushrooms. Mixed within the noise of drills and hammering is laughing and talk of the recent basketball game between Duke University and UNC. Though each volunteer took a different path to find the garden, and for different reasons, there is an immediate sense of camaraderie among them.

An engagement program of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, CCG covers one-third of an acre off of Cameron Avenue, near The Carolina Inn. The idea for the garden sprouted during an advisory board meeting between the UNC Employee Forum, the Botanical Garden and the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in 2009. “They were concerned that more and more of UNC staff at the lower end of the pay scale were struggling to feed their families due to the Great Recession,” says Claire Lorch, program manager for CCG. “There was talk of starting a food bank, and the idea surfaced to start a garden.”

Zach Kingery
Zach Kingery, a UNC freshman, waters the garden.

The timing couldn’t have been better. The university had just purchased the plot of land on Wilson Street for potential parking or faculty housing. However, due to the university’s lack of funds from the recession, the advisory board was permitted temporary use of the land. More than a decade later, the garden continues to grow, with a total of 43 planting beds, 11 compost-curing boxes, a tool shed and greenhouse (both are solar- powered), two hives for honey bees, an herb garden, blueberry bushes, Japanese persimmon trees, a fig tree and a muscadine grapevine.

But Claire couldn’t grow and maintain the plot alone. Since the beginning, CCG has relied on the work of volunteers. At its peak, the garden sees around 60 volunteers across the three workdays each week, with close to 20 people there at one time. “We have some very committed folks,” Claire says. Local high school students, undergraduate and graduate students from the university, UNC staff/faculty and community members gather to help tend the garden. Some volunteers have been tilling the soil and harvesting produce at CCG for years. For others, it’s their first day.

Carolina Community Garden
Zara Petrocy, a UNC senior, tends a bed of pansies during her first time volunteering at Carolina Community Garden.

Volunteers rarely know what they may be doing during their next shift. “Last week, I made that trellis over there. That was fun,” says Jessica Beers, pointing to a 4-foot- tall structure made from wire fencing and bamboo. Jessica, a UNC graduate student working on her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science, has volunteered there for almost a year.

She discovered the garden through the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services facility. “I was having some trouble at the time, and they recommended this as a good way to destress,” Jessica says. “Just getting my hands in the dirt relieves a lot of stress. It gets me outside, and it’s nice to know that I’m helping other people.” “Weeding has become my zen experience of the week,” says Kathleen Lindner, the executive director for the Center for European Studies at UNC. “Who knew I would grow up to love a task I hated as a kid.” Kathleen and her son, Paul, 16, and daughter Margaret, 14, have been volunteering since October 2020. “I absolutely love spending time with my [kids] at the garden … doing something we enjoy,” she says. “Sometimes we are quiet, and sometimes we have conversations I cherish.”

Carolina Community Garden

But Claire’s most important volunteer has been her husband, Fred Stang. “Fred does a lot of the design work,” Claire says. “He built a hands-free wash station and hands- free compost receptacle. He also helps write grants and guides the volunteers [with tasks]. He has been an integral part of this garden and my right-hand man.”

The garden produces roughly 5,000 pounds of produce per year, with a total of 54,814 pounds since it started in early 2010. All of the produce harvested is distributed to nearly 400 families of UNC housekeepers, the majority of whom are refugees from Burma. Along with the usual crops of lettuce, carrots, onions and tomatoes, CCG grows produce more familiar to its recipients, including yardlong beans, snake gourds, hot peppers, okra and Chinese cabbage. Typically, recipients came to CCG to receive harvested produce, but in COVID-19 times, Claire had to improvise.

“Initially, we had to close the garden. For the first few months, we didn’t have any volunteers,” Claire says. “It was just myself and an assistant doing whatever work we could.” As restrictions relaxed in summer 2020, medical students began volunteering for CCG. By the end of the summer, 1,407 pounds of produce went primarily to front-line workers as well as transportation and custodial staff for UNC Hospitals. “[The medical students] really got us through the summer months,” Claire says. By the fall, CCG was able to return to distributing produce to the housekeeping staff. “We pack the food ourselves into 14 bags stuffed as full as we can and fit them in the refrigerator at the headquarters,” Claire says. “Then [the food] is distributed to the various groups of housekeepers. I’m hoping it won’t be too much longer until we can go back to having recipients come to the garden and help themselves to the food.”

Claire continues to introduce new plants to CCG including blackberries, pineapple guava and goumi berries, as well as native pollinator plants like bee balm. But what excites Claire the most is the new partnership between the Botanical Garden and the American Indian Center (located across the street from CCG). “There are plans in the works to build [the] American Indian Cultural Garden right next to our garden. We are very excited to have this neighbor garden and to be involved in the design,” she says. From an expanding variety of produce to the introduction of a sister garden, the Carolina Community Garden continues to grow strong.

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James Dupree

James is an Editorial Intern for Chapel Hill Magazine. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and walked away with a fancy-schmancy English degree. When not taking cool photos of weird flowers, James sits in cafes attempting to write anything worthwhile. You can read James' work on his site and view all those cool photos of weird flowers on his instagram.
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