Grow Appalachia was created in 2009 through funding from John Paul Dejoria, co-founder and owner of John Paul Mitchell Systems (JPMS) and Patron Tequila, to address the problem of food security in Appalachia. Tommy Callahan, a friend of John Paul’s and Senior Vice President of Training and Development at JPMS, told John Paul about his experience growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, where food insecurity is still pervasive and healthy food is frequently unavailable. A natural entrepreneur and problem-solver, John Paul began cultivating a unique vision for tackling food insecurity. He believes that the best way to help people is to empower them to help themselves—even when facing steep, structural challenges.
According to the Appalachian Regional Commission:
- Unemployment is stuck well above 10 percent throughout the region
- Per capita income in Appalachia was just $22,727 in 2010, nearly 15 percent lower than the national average
- An average of 15.6 percent of families in Appalachia fell under the poverty line in 2010, two percent more than the national average. In rural areas, poverty rates jump to 21.6 percent.
- In the poorest parts of the region (the primary focus of Grow Appalachia), poverty rates often approach 25 percent.
The food system in America has created an environment in which the average family has become increasingly unaware of where their food comes from. Large factory farms, while capable of providing vast amounts of affordably priced food, have isolated families from their food sources. Despite the rural environment of Appalachia, gardening and farming have become less popular and less profitable in the region. There is a terrible irony in the lack of locally grown food in the midst of one of the world’s most diverse and productive ecosystems. The type of food available in grocery stores, particularly in “food deserts” common in rural Appalachia, is overwhelmingly high-calorie and low-nutrition. In this environment, healthy eating simply isn’t an option, leading to obesity and nutrition-related diseases. John Paul is determined to give the people of Appalachia the choice to eat well by combining his generosity with their hard work.
Gardening addresses such issues in several ways:
- It requires people to do the work for themselves.
- It produces both healthy food and outdoor exercise.
- It has long been a tradition of the people of rural Appalachia and the land is suited for producing.
- It becomes an entrepreneurial endeavor when gardens are expanded beyond the needs of the families. Selling those extra tomatoes or melons can be the beginning of a business.
In order to start growing as quickly as possible, John Paul began collaborating with Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, to develop a program that would both meet needs and leverage existing community strengths. Director David Cooke—a West Virginia native, a lifelong gardener, and formerly the program coordinator of the college’s Entrepreneurship for the Public Good Program—answered the call and has been responsible for developing the Grow Appalachia program and its partnerships ever since. In turn, Berea College has consistently served as generous host since the program’s founding.
In 2010, our first year, Grow Appalachia participants at four partner sites in Kentucky grew some 120,000 pounds of food for more than 2,800 people. In 2011, our program expanded to a total of seven sites across four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Despite a difficult growing season, Grow Appalachia gardeners still managed to grow approximately 134,000 pounds of food for 3,694 people. Our program also provided at least part-time employment for over 70 people as gardening coordinators, field workers and site supervisors.
In 2012 we partnered with 15 sites across the same states. We had over 400 individual gardens and 41 community gardens in 30 counties. These community gardens are plots provided by their respective communities. This approach creates value from unused or underutilized land that’s available in abundance across the region. And it highlights just how much communities believe in Grow Appalachia. They’re willing to support the project without asking anything in return.
We also created 90 full and part-time jobs and continue working to create additional jobs through the Grow Appalachia model in the future. These gardens produced over 320,000 pounds of high quality vegetables and fruits that were shared among over 9000 people.
In 2013 we expanded to new counties throughout Appalachia to provide even more people with the ability to garden and move the whole region toward self-sustaining food systems. To this aim, we provided small livestock to our program participants. Our original efforts focused on laying hens and bees. Fresh eggs from just a few hens can add a substantial amount of high quality protein to a family’s diet and excess eggs can always be sold or bartered. The benefits of bees are numerous and locally produced honey always sells at a premium and at least one site is producing skin care products using their own beeswax and herbs from their garden. Through providing the initial infrastructure investment, John Paul jump-started food production in the region and made rural gardening both possible and profitable.
In 2014, Grow Appalachia worked with over 25 partner sites in 39 counties with more than 1500 families and 50 community gardens. We were fortunate to feed 19,500 people growing over 675,000 pounds of food. We facilitated 100 jobs in central Appalachia through gardening projects with Grow Appalachia and our participants sold more than $54,000 in produce.
Rather than apply a cookie cutter approach to nutrition based wellness, Grow Appalachia meets families where they live and addresses their specific needs. Some families need only help with tillage and fertilization. Some families need to start from scratch. Some elderly and disabled gardeners need help with the hard labor of preparing beds, planting and cultivation, and Grow Appalachia connects them with young people to enable them to keep food security at their own homes. We provide each family with what they need to succeed.