WACO—Soon after their final classes of the day end, a group of Waco middle-school students gather around the raised beds of their campus vegetable garden.
A few first-timers accompany veteran student gardeners. One girl expresses initial reluctance about getting her hands dirty.
Interns from the World Hunger Relief farm, just north of Waco, patiently work with her, and before long, she joins her friends in the elemental pleasure of digging in the soil and planting vegetables.
For children who live in the city’s food deserts—places without access to healthy groceries—and who attend schools where nine out of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunches, the gardens meet multiple needs.
Working in the garden provides students a wholesome outdoor after-school activity. Children and young teenagers learn about life science, nutrition and citizenship. The gardens provide a link to the surrounding neighborhoods, where World Hunger Relief seeks to foster community development. And young people who otherwise might snack on junk food eagerly wait their turn to sample vegetables.
Growing and eating vegetables
“Kids who grow their own vegetables want to eat them,” said Rebecca Mann, education director and interim executive director at World Hunger Relief. Middle-schoolers accustomed to munching on chips and candy can’t wait to sample baby spinach leaves, tomatoes and lettuce when they planted, watered, weeded and harvested them.
World Hunger Relief launched the school garden initiative in 2008 at J.H. Hines Elementary School, working in cooperation with the NAACP. Since then, it has expanded to include gardens at Indian Springs and Carver middle schools. Anywhere from 15 to 50 students a week participate.
“The idea is to take under-performing kids and enrich them with fun activities that give them the chance to be outdoors and to learn healthy living,” Mann said. “We try to follow the kids’ interests, whether that’s learning about bugs or teaching them cooking skills.”
At one school, a coach leads cooking demonstrations, showing students how to grill vegetables. World Hunger Relief wants to provide additional training to give teachers ideas about how to use the gardens to help students develop language arts, science and math skills.
Interns learn as they teach
World Hunger Relief interns who work with the students point to the after-school activity as a learning experience for them, as well.
Rachel Bailey, an intern from Albany, Ga., noted the experience has inspired her to continue her educational and vocational interest in maternal nutrition.
“I want to train mothers, teaching them skills and knowledge they can pass down to their children,” she said.
Lauren DeSilva, an intern from South Africa, wants to enter the master of divinity/master of social work program jointly offered by Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and its Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.
“I want to understand social justice, Christ’s vision for the world and how I can be part of making that vision a reality,” she said. “I hope to be able to serve people who are without a voice.”
Implementing global practices locally
For more than 40 years, World Hunger Relief has served as a training ground for agricultural missionaries and others involved in holistic ministries worldwide.
The school gardening initiative reflects the organization’s desire to put into practice locally some of the same sustainable community development principles it has honed working with global partners—Ricks Institute in Liberia and the Valle Nuevo farming community in El Salvador—as well as its own long-term ministry in Haiti.
Texas Baptists help support both the school gardening program and international development programs of World Hunger Relief through their gifts to the Texas Hunger Offering.
The organization also has launched a pilot program with three Family Health Center locations in Waco. Doctors at the centers prescribe vegetables to patients who need to improve their diets. The World Hunger Relief farm has provided the centers about 1,000 boxes of vegetables—complete with suggested recipes—in three months.
A training ground to address global hunger
Bob and Jan Salley—gospel singers and real-estate developers—launched World Hunger Relief Inc. in 1976. Three years later, when Carl Ryther returned to Texas after serving as an agricultural missionary, the Salleys invited him to join them to develop a program to teach people how to address global hunger.
Groups from around the country have participated in the organization’s Living on the Other Side global poverty simulation. During their time at the farm, participants learn what it means to haul water, harvest vegetables, gather wood for a fire and even slaughter a chicken to prepare their own meal in primitive conditions.
Interns work 13 months on the 40-acre World Hunger Relief farm, where they learn sustainable agricultural techniques, problem-solving skills and a holistic approach to Christian missions. Many continue the learning experience with an optional three months in a developing nation.
After serving four years with Youth With A Mission, including two years in North Africa, Natalie Derricks, an intern from Wisconsin, arrived at the World Hunger Relief farm with a deep interest in nutrition and “no gardening experience,” she said.
“It has changed my perception of the world and how I view missions,” she said.
Meeting needs and sharing faith
Mann—whose grandparents on both sides of her family served as Baptist foreign missionaries—views the farm’s educational outreach programs as occasions to engage people in spiritually meaningful conversations, even if they are not overtly evangelistic.
As participants learn about poverty, hunger and inequity in food distribution, she or others raise the question, “What does God think about this?”
“It’s an opportunity to start the conversation,” she said.
Mann first learned about World Hunger Relief while she was pursuing a degree in international studies at Baylor University. After her “World Food Problems” class introduced her to the organization, she started volunteering at the farm.
She joined the staff in 2012 as an interim office manager and became the education and business director two years later. She and her husband, Chris, and their 3-year-old son, Bridge, attend Dayspring Baptist Church in Waco.
“We want more people to gain access to healthy food,” she said. “It’s not OK that kids are denied the opportunity for their bodies and brains to grow because they are not nourished. We think this is what God wants us to do.”
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