by Amirio Freeman

As an undergraduate student at one of the most rigorous and challenging academic institutions in the country, I have become increasingly appreciative of the breaks that are scheduled throughout the year, especially Spring Break. With a dearth of exams to prepare for, papers to write, and club meetings to attend, Spring Break is one of the few moments that provides me with an opportunity to disengage, destress, and practice necessary acts of leisure and self-care.

Over time, my Spring Breaks have become pretty predictable, revolving around standard relaxation activities: sleeping, eating, reading, catching up with friends, sleeping some more, working on various passion projects, and watching all the Netflix series that everyone cannot stop raving about. However, for my most recent Spring Break, I decided to switch things up by going on a Branch Out alternative break.

Since arriving at William & Mary, I have found that my peers’ passion for activism, volunteering, and caring for varied communities is incredibly contagious. So much so that I have found myself reflecting more and more on how I can transform my interests into catalysts for action and change. So, this year, especially after hearing about a friend who decided to be a part of an international Branch Out trip to Jinotega, Nicaragua, I decided to step out of my usual Spring Break routine and spend my break doing something meaningful, transformative, and impactful. With an interest in the social side of sustainability and the human aspect of environmental issues, I ultimately decided to go on the Branch Out trip that partnered with Lynchburg Grows, a volunteer-centric nonprofit that makes use of urban farming to combat issues that are faced by disadvantaged communities in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Home to nine fully functioning greenhouses (and the sassiest goat you’ll ever meet!), Lynchburg Grows makes use of its available resources to provide nutritional and food systems programming for elementary school-aged children, vocational training for disabled and low-income persons, and workshop and volunteer opportunities for those interested in gardening. Also, most of the organization’s efforts are focused around organically farming vegetables, that are later disseminated to the Lynchburg community via various means (including donation, a mobile farmer’s market, and a community supported agriculture system). While many may be confused as to why an organization would devote so much time to agricultural work, the necessity of such work becomes apparent when considering that Lynchburg, Virginia is an area dotted with food deserts.

For many people, gaining access to fresh produce involves nothing more than hopping into a car and driving to the nearest Farm Fresh or Food Lion. However, for thousands of individuals across the country, accessibility to such items is rather limited because they live in a food desert—a typically urban and low-income location where residents’ options for buying affordable and high-quality fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foodstuffs are deficient or completely absent. As discussed before and during my Branch Out trip, there are many reasons why food deserts even exist: certain areas lack supermarkets or grocery stores, certain populations are far removed from existing supermarkets or grocery stores, and certain locales lack solid a transportation infrastructure that permits individuals to travel to areas where they can buy fresh, healthful food items. Overall, the root causes of food deserts are varied and entangled.

Food deserts are important to eradicate because, fundamentally, access to food that is nourishing and inexpensive is a human right. Beyond that, access to food relates to so many other areas of our lives. For instance, a child’s access to healthy food options at home has implications for their educational achievement; their educational achievement, in turn, has implications for their potential criminal behavior; and their potential criminal behavior has implications for their future employment prospects. In other words, access to food is important, and that is why the work of Lynchburg Grows is so essential. Therefore, I’m so happy and incredibly thankful that—through helping to restore a farmhouse, weeding, seeding, and shoveling and wheelbarrowing layers of soil, compost, and mulch into greenhouse beds—I got to contribute in some small way to the organization’s overarching mission.

While doing manual work for Lynchburg Grows, I will admit that I sometimes felt as though my efforts were insignificant because I couldn’t directly see the fruit of my labor. A single actor in Lynchburg Grows’ multi-part process for chipping away at the presence of food deserts, I felt distanced from the issue I was helping to fight and, therefore, I found it difficult to see how I was being helpful and impactful. So, when given the opportunity help run the aforementioned mobile farmer’s market, I was excited to finally see Lynchburg Grows mitigate the effects of food deserts in practice and not just in theory.

However, as my Branch Out team and I travelled to various locations in Lynchburg, Virginia that are considered food deserts, assisted with the selling of inexpensive, Lynchburg Grows-farmed produce, and came into contact with individuals, of different ages, for whom purchasing healthy food products is a daily struggle, I became angry. First, I was upset with myself for centering my desire to feel significant during an experience that was supposed to be about others. Secondly, I was upset over the fact that food deserts even exist. After interacting with my social justice issue in such a physical, tangible, and human way—beyond definitions and statistics and maps—I realized how devastating it is that something as simple as an apple is inaccessible to so many people. The fact that potatoes aren’t fully accessible should be considered an epidemic. The fact that tomatoes aren’t available in everyone’s kitchen should be regarded as criminal.

Since arriving back on campus since my Lynchburg Grows experience, my anger hasn’t left.

As a result of my time at Lynchburg Grows, I have learned how necessary it is for me—and others—to become an active agent of change in communities I am rooted in, even when I may feel distanced from the end result of my labor. That realization, in turn, has inspired me to find ways to help combat sustainability-related issues here in Williamsburg. For example, I have recently become encouraged to work with organizations that are already doing transformative community-based and sustainability-centric work, such as William & Mary’s Campus Kitchen branch (a group that provides meals to food-insecure families in Williamsburg). Additionally, I have become encouraged to start my own projects, as made evident by my recent submission of a summer research grant proposal to the campus’ Committee on Sustainability.

Beyond creating changes in my community, my time working with Lynchburg Grows has also awakened an inner desire to create changes within myself. After days of being outside (instead of in Swem) and after so much interaction with the world around me (instead of with my laptop), I have made a commitment to myself to create more room in my daily schedule for being outdoors and enjoying nature.

All in all, I am so, so thankful that I was able to spend my most recent Spring Break in Lynchburg, Virginia. I not only had the opportunity to give my time to others, but I was also given so many insights and lessons that I plan to use to engender both personal growth and community change. And to think I almost spent another Spring Break clearing my Netflix queue!