James Gardner, 39, Belly Filler
Two years ago, James Gardner didn’t know much about agriculture beyond what he learned playing in his father’s Virginia garden many years ago.
Yet here he is, leading a massive volunteer-run community garden project that is filling the bellies of 65 local families every week.
This high school science teacher and urban farmer is doing what he needs to do to feed the community.
“I tell people all the time, it has been a faith walk. I don’t always know want I am doing. I am learning as I go,” James says. “We’re out there trying to feed Greensboro.”
James grew up in a rural Virginian town. His parents maintained a backyard garden with a few chickens for most of his childhood.
“My dad was always working in this garden with his mother. Consequently, we spent our days and summers working in the garden with my dad,” he says.
James went to Hampton University to study biology. That’s where he met and started dating Faith Lockett, a Greensboro native who had ambitions to be a doctor. They got married, and both ended up being accepted to go to Chicago Medical School. She went; James got a job in sales to support them and their growing family.
After Faith’s residency, in 2015 the then family of six moved to Greensboro. She took a job as a pediatrician. He started teaching science at Ragsdale High School. The now family of 7 became involved with the Lockett family ministry.
Faith’s late father, Otis Lockett Sr., founded Evangel Fellowship, the nonprofit Positive Direction for Youth & Families (PDY&F) and Malachi House, a residential treatment facility for men. “He has done such amazing work,” James said of his father-in-law. “He created a wave of service and made it easy to jump in and support his vision.”
Faith and James both served as volunteers for PDY&F for several years. James worked as a GED instructor with PDY&F, Malachi House and GTCC to help people who wanted earn a high school diploma. Faith served on the Executive board of directors for PDY&F. James fell in love with serving.
Two years ago, the ministry and PDY&F turned its attention to food insecurity, adding resources to the already existing food pantry on Phillips Avenue and delivering food directly to those who struggled with transportation. They implemented pop-up pantries, bringing boxes of canned goods to locations throughout the community.
Then the pandemic hit, and the PDY&F board saw the need to get more food to more people.
“The board met and said we really want to maybe try to get a garden off the ground. Is there anybody to do it?” James said. Faith told them, “You know, James grew up gardening. I’m sure he would love to do this.”
James agreed to take on what would become a mammoth task. He saw the need too, right in his classroom. He teaches students who are distracted by the crinkles of candy wrapper hoping that a classmate will share food. James’ heart goes out to students who at the time didn’t have lunch money, but would ask him if he had snacks for them.
“You can’t teach hungry students. You just can’t. I wouldn’t even want to teach if I missed breakfast,” James says. “I know I can’t fix world hunger but I can start right there on the east side of town.”
The PDY&F Community Garden started with just a few beds on the grounds of a former school on Huffine Mill Road, a tiny budget, and lots of volunteers.
Every Saturday is a garden work day. A core group of volunteers help with all the key garden tasks. Wednesdays they pick and deliver fresh produce to the pop-up food pantry location at Evangel Fellowship Church. On Thursday mornings, food is distributed; people just drive up and collect their box. No sign up required.
The garden grows leafy greens, collards, cabbage, broccoli, beets, melon and more, based on the season. They don’t use chemical pesticides. It’s been a learning process for the team. “At the beginning of the year, we lost all of our cabbages and broccoli to bugs,” James says. “I’m still learning how to run a garden.”
He learned some tough lessons about prioritizing soil and water. There were beds filled with dirt that did not produce at all. They learned early how to amend the soil, gathering valuable information from the local NC Cooperative extension. Now they’re using compost and aged leaf mulch from the City’s mulching operation at the White Street Landfill. “Every bed and garden plot is producing,” James says.
In July, the garden got a major improvement: they started building a greenhouse. The Greensboro Jaycees, synerG and F3 stepped in to help. Upward of 100 volunteers showed up to the garden and built beds, planted, and built the framework for the greenhouse.
James was amazed at all the different people – from all different walks of life – who came together to feed their neighbors. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Our common ground now is love,” James says.
These days, they are up to 60-65 families fed every week.
James is proud they are bringing good nutrition to families.
“My wife experiences witnesses the need for healthy foods in the clinic as well. She works for a federally qualified health center. She’s seen families do everything they could to provide food for their children but come up with just enough to survive. I want to take them past survival mode. With this garden project we will take care of the food part.”
The ministry committed to feeding 100,000 people in 2021. As of the time this article was written they, with the help of the garden had provided 95000 meals. They are confident that they will surpass the 100,000 mark and will use this momentum to increase the goal for the coming year.
James wants to do more. He’s got plans to finish the greenhouse and set up an aquaponics operation. He dreams of turning the garden into a learning center. He plans on taking the skills practiced on the garden’s campus and creating a model for instruction that can be used and replicated in other food deserts throughout Greensboro and surrounding areas.
“I want to give people food but I also want to teach them how to grow it as well” he says. “I’ve really found purpose in what I am doing now.”