Access to food and local produce can be limited in parts of Forsyth County.

Residents in Winston-Salem and other urban areas could have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables with the success of the county’s community gardening program and urban farm school.

When local food and research on food deserts became public knowledge, Forsyth County Cooperative Extension attempted to tap into both.

In 2010, the county founded Forsyth Community Gardening to help cultivate existing gardens and grow community gardening in need areas of the county, mostly in eastern Winston-Salem.

Megan Gregory, Forsyth County’s community gardening coordinator, told Forsyth County commissioners that since Forsyth Community Gardening’s inception, the number of community gardens has grown from 40 in 2010 to 160 in 2016.

“There is tremendous interest in cultivating community gardens,” Gregory said. “Having a resource organization to support these gardens is really helping them thrive and have a greater impact on food access, education and community relationships.”

About 60 percent of the community gardens are in “need areas” of the county. These areas are typically areas classified as food deserts, Gregory said.

Forsyth Community Gardening started the Community Garden Mentor Program in 2016. Gregory said 49 mentors helped with 48 gardens. Mentors assist with starting community gardens, organizing leadership, sustaining horticulture and educating others involved in the community garden.

In addition to founding Forsyth Community Gardening, the county also started an urban farm school in 2016 aimed at teaching unemployed and under-employed residents in distressed areas of the county, said Mary Jac Brennan, extension agent for small farms and local foods.

The urban farm school is a 12-week program where students learn and practice agriculture, business management and marketing. Local farmers teach classes and host field trips to their farms.

The school had four students in its pilot program in the spring and 10 students in the fall program. Out of the 14 students, nine are either farming or setting up farms to continue learning and practicing urban farming.

“For all of our grads, this was their first contact with the cooperative extension,” Brennan said. “This is a great opportunity for us. The graduates take the information into their community.”

Brennan said she hopes urban farming increases access to fresh produce.

Brennan wants to develop other courses for the urban farm school and secure an incubator location where graduates from the school can continue to apply their knowledge in farming and horticulture.

“We’d like to see a vibrant urban farm scene in Forsyth County,” Brennan said. “We’re hoping this will give people more skills to grow for themselves and their community.”

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jhowse@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7203 @JordanMHowseWSJ

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