June 3, 2015
The Hatteras-Conetoe Connection: Exchanging
healthy food and culture....WITH SLIDE SHOW


When a small group of Hatteras Islanders accompanied Saltwater Connections coordinator Susan West to the Conetoe Family Life Center in 2012 there was no hint of what good things would result from that visit.

The Community Gardeners and Coastal Harvesters of Hatteras went searching for inspiration from an established community garden in the small town of Conetoe (pronounced con-e-ta) about 160 miles inland just east of Wilson, N.C.

They were astonished.

“It is not a garden. It’s a farm!" West said. "They were really generous, giving us field peas and okra.  Their generosity was really touching.  But it was more than a garden.  It was also about mentoring the kids.”

West continued, “They (the youth) are instructed in how to speak to adults, what words you cannot use.  They write grant proposals and market their produce.  There is an unwritten rule that anyone in the community who needs produce can just go get it.  It is inspirational.”

Three years later, there is an innovative food exchange and an equally important cultural exchange well underway between the Conetoe folks and Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies food and nutrition students.

The idea for the initial visit came about at a 2012 Saltwater Connections meeting in the Avon Fire House during a discussion about the need on Hatteras for fresh, easily accessible produce.   Mikki Sager, vice-president and director of the Conservation Fund’s  Resourceful Communities program, suggested that islanders might want to develop a cooperative relationship with Conetoe.   “They have no seafood.  You have no produce.  Why not trade?”

The Conetoe story truly is inspirational -- a tale of positive determination, dedication, and generosity beyond what most of us experience.  

When Rev. Richard Joyner, himself an inspiration, first went to the Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church, he was stunned and alarmed to learn that his new community had the worst health rating in the state.  Obesity was rampant, heart conditions were common, and healthful nutrition, practically non-existent.  During his first year, he presided over 30 funerals of people 32 years old or younger, most of whom suffered from ailments caused by poor nutrition.

The area was in terrible decline, having lost most of its jobs as plants and mills closed.  People needed not only food but also purpose.

He made healthy eating his first priority.  He organized local youth to help build a garden.  That garden would provide fresh produce for all the people in the community, teach the young folks skills and provide them with something useful to do with their time.

“When the youth get to take home food to their families they get to see how it feels to be givers rather than takers,” Joyner said.

Over time, the garden grew to encompass 25 acres.  Local farmers provided assistance and labor and even donated used farm equipment.  They acquired a used school bus and beekeeping equipment and turned their bus into the “Bee Bus,” where 130 hives are housed.

As the youth leaders explained, the bees contribute to the overall success of their crops and now produce several hundred pounds of honey.

The Conetoe farmers began selling their products, including the honey, at their roadside stand, in farmers markets, and to the local Piggly Wiggly supermarkets.  Income goes back into the farm and into an educational fund that provides opportunities for young folks who would otherwise have few, if any.

The Hatteras visitors were so impressed that they invited Rev. Joyner and his kids to attend Day at the Docks in 2012 and to provide produce for the Seafood Throwdown.  They readily accepted, and local adults offered to host them.  

These young people are from a mostly Africa- American community and most were about to visit the coast for the first time.  They came on a Friday, and on their way they stopped at the Pea Island Cook House in Manteo where they were introduced to African-American coastal heritage, a new concept for them.

On arrival in Hatteras village, they were taken to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, and after the tour, were met by members of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club who took them over to the beach for their first experience on the beach, in the ocean and handling a fishing rod!  The young folks were alert and enthusiastic students and even caught two fish, which they proudly donated to the Seafood Throwdown.

They took the ferry to Ocracoke for their first boat ride.  Other volunteers hosted a dinner for them at the Hatteras Village Community Building.

Arriving at Day at the Docks the next morning, they were joined by a busload of other Conetoe  young folks and they all immediately scattered and participated in the activities.  They were all over the waterfront!  There had been “guides” arranged to help them find their way around and feel a part of the event, but no guides were needed!

Rev. Joyner watched and said, “It looks like all white people here.  This is really good.  It works both ways.”

At the Seafood Throwdown, they were an enthusiastic audience and later they all piled onto the Miss Hatteras party boat for the Blessing of the Fleet.

At day’s end, when they left to return home, they took a cooler filled with fish donated by some commercial fishermen.  

Thus began the Food Exchange.  Their produce for the Seafood Throwdown.  Our fish for their community.

They had a “pretty neat experience” and felt comfortable and welcome here, so when it was time for a visit from Hatteras students they looked forward to sharing their hospitality.

How did this come about? 

In December of 2013 the principal of Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies, Beth Rooks, approached one of the teachers about setting up a new curriculum at the school.  She felt that, with all of the restaurants on the island, many students would be looking for summer work and perhaps careers after graduation, and she wanted to give them an opportunity to dev

The students from a fishing community and the students from the farming community get together for a group photo.

elop restaurant skills.

Evan Ferguson was elated!  She had been dreaming of a course on Food and Nutrition for a while, ever since she became a parent and was now responsible for her children’s long-term health.  “Viewing  Food, Inc. changed habits for me as a mother,” she explained.  “I wanted to share at least some segments of the video with my students to illustrate the value of responsible eating.”

Her goal, in addition to restaurant skills, was to broaden the students', and by extension, their families’, knowledge of healthy choices and the art of making smart -- but delicious -- decisions about selection, preparation, and overall enjoyment of the food they consume.

When they got the go-ahead in the spring of 2014, she wasted no time, and, within three months,  Dare County Schools had installed the kitchen and Ferguson had written the curriculum in compliance with the state curriculum, NCDPI.

Ferguson added Praxis to her license certification, allowing her to teach Family and Consumer Sciences.  And they were ready to turn on the stoves!

Like other dedicated teachers at CHSSCS, Ferguson wanted to supplement her less than ideal budget in order to fully exploit the opportunities this new class offered, including creating a school garden and introducing bee hives.  

She successfully applied for and received seven grants - several of which were pretty hefty - and was recently recognized for this achievement by the Dare County Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools.

The grants covered a variety of needs, including transportation to Conetoe, kitchen and gardening supplies and equipment, beekeeping equipment, and technology (mini iPads).  One of the grants is intended to supplement equipment and to allow Ferguson to work with schools on Ocracoke and Down East to “incorporate like goals and classroom lessons.”  Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies will lead the way.

Grantors included Bright Ideas, Hatteras Youth Education Fund, Education NC, Blue Cross Blue Shield NC Foundation, Saltwater Connections/Resourceful Communities, and Burt’s Bees (Guess what they donated!).

In addition, she received numerous donations of many types from Hatteras Island residents who heard about the project and wanted to support it --  fresh fish to share and to cook along with other consumables, cookbooks, lumber for the compost bin and the raised bed garden necessary on this tide-prone island, garden tools, soil, fertilizer, even aged horse manure. They also received cake-decorating supplies, artwork for classroom cafe, a Champion juicer, and flower pots.  Recently, a teacher offered doors for a future greenhouse.

Ferguson is elated. “Ours is such a generous community!  My marketing background has helped me let everyone know what we are doing and then they want to help.”

This is a STEM program, and that makes it eligible for a number of grants that may not be otherwise available.  She and Rooks have made this a cross-curriculum program that includes the science, technology, engineering, and math departments at the school.  

The carpentry students built the compost bin and the raised bed garden.  Ferguson’s sister, Erin Del Monte, is a science teacher at the school, and her biology class is using the new garden as a lab and will be in charge of the beekeeping operation when it starts next year.  They travel to Conetoe, along with the Food students.

In fact, during recent Earth Day and Food Day events all four departments participated in hosting the festivities.

The students have the opportunity to “show off” their new skills in the school with tastings a few times a year.  They also supplied the buffet for the Veterans’ Day celebration honoring local veterans that was held in the school, much to the pleasure of all in attendance.

Recipes are shared with the staff, as part of the overall goal is to ensure they, too, have healthy alternatives.

The staf, will also be able to share in the harvest.  

“A garden was always part of the plan especially as I have a long-term plan to get local food into the school cafeteria,” Ferguson said.  That won’t be so easy, but it is being done elsewhere and she is determined.  In fact, she intends to obtain her Agricultural Praxis next year so she may implement horticulture classes in the 2016-2017 school year.

Most of the plants in the garden were gifts from Conetoe.  They include summer favorites, such as tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, and summer kale.  Kale is important, since Ferguson recently met one of her student’s mothers in a local grocery store and she was buying kale.  Why?  “She told me that potato chips were now banned.  Her child wanted kale chips instead!”

Ferguson regularly gets such comments from parents, who are amazed by the interest their children have developed in good eating habits and who bring the family up to date!

She believes the students “are literally hungry for healthy choices.”  This class relates to them and to their young lives.  One student, Delaney Johnson, stated on a video created by Education NC, “Eating healthy is really important to me and my family.”

This encourages Ferguson and Rooks.  There is, of course, end-of-year testing, but Ferguson assures me, “This is not about teaching to the test.  It is developing life skills, gaining the knowledge to make healthy choices and bring it home to their families.”

Now, how does this tie into Conetoe Family Life Center?

Susan West and I were excited about our Day at the Docks connection with them and wanted to take it to the next level, establishing an ongoing food exchange.  But we really did not see a clear path.

Then Evan Ferguson’s new class held promise.  We asked Rev. Joyner when he was a Seafood Throwdown judge at the 2014 Day at the Docks if he would be willing to talk with her and see if they could develop the cooperative relationship that Sager encouraged.  He was very enthusiastic and told us to have her call him.

She did, and it was the beginning of an enriching experience for all involved - on many levels.

Richard Joyner was “very excited and wanted to make this happen.”

They arranged for Ferguson to bring her class and her sister’s biology class over to Conetoe.  There they would deliver fresh, local fish (cleaned and ready to cook), tour the garden, and share a lunch while exploring future possibilities.

But the cost of transportation was $900 and not in their budget.  They applied for local funding but did not receive it.

Enter Mikki Sager again.  This is a nearly ideal example of Resourceful Community action, and she wanted to make sure it happened.  She contacted one of her partners, Education NC, and the immediate response was, “We’ll help you.”  Megan Rash, CEO and editor-in-chief, noted,  “$900 was standing between these kids and their great idea, and $900 is a lot of money in Conetoe and Hatteras.”

Not only did they provide the funding but also sent a videographer along to create a documentary and a photographer to record the visit.  Sager, herself, traveled from her office in Chapel Hill to participate in this important new venture.

As sometimes happens here, the weather was not cooperative.  A nor’easter had come through causing flooding on parts of Highway 12, but it was not bad enough to stop the bus!  In fact, they made it through just before the road was closed!

Upon arrival, Rev. Joyner welcomed the islanders and thanked them for “wadin’ through the water to get here.”  

Both Ferguson and  Joyner had prepared their students for the cultural aspect of this first visit.  Hatteras is mainly Caucasian and Conetoe, African-American, and there was a little uncertainty about how they would respond to each other.   That was unnecessary!  To the young people, “It was no big deal. They had great interaction,” Evan Ferguson proudly proclaimed.  

As Hannah Lovell, one of her students, remarked,  “Even though we might be different, when we get together, we are more the same, alike than you realize.”

Rev. Joyner was happy to see that, “In these times of Baltimore and Ferguson (Missouri), our youth can work and play together and find common ground.  That is good for us all.”  

In April of this year, the students returned to Conetoe for a fuller visit, where they participated in planting.  Again, they brought fish to share, and, in return, were given fresh produce and plants for their new school garden.  This second trip was funded by The Hatteras Island Youth Education Fund.

Rev. Joyner instructed the students to “Choose a partner for the day, someone you don’t know.  And then be ready to come up in front and introduce your partner and tell us what he/she wants to do when you grow up.”    

There were students of all grades there, even some from the elementary schools.

“The local school district is very supportive of the Conetoe Family Life Center," Ferguson said, "and allowed students from several schools to be excused from school to participate in the Hatteras students’ visit.”

Ferguson found it “wonderful to watch the interaction,  Some high school kids were paired with first graders and had a great day!”  They even found time to make some music together around the piano and shoot a few baskets before the day was over.

Cape Hatteras Secondary School now offers three Foods1 classes, essential to building the program, and next year they will introduce two Foods 2 classes.  These classes will involve more intricate recipes and sanitation techniques and, on completion, students will be “Serve Safe Certified.”  This is a sanitation accreditation that should give the students an edge when applying for restaurant jobs.

A professional beekeeper visited the classroom this semester and is ready to help them get started with their beekeeping venture during the next school year.  They are planning to eventually sell their honey to support their program and supplement their grants.  

Promoting and using local seafood is a major component of their plans.  While all seafood shared with Conetoe has been generously donated by Jeff Aiken of Jeffrey’s Seafood, it is their hope that they will be able to support local fishermen by purchasing fish in the future.

And, some day, we may actually have local seafood in our school cafeterias!  And next to it on the plate, fresh produce from the school garden!



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