By the summer of 2005, the Reverend Richard Joyner of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church realized he was conducting funerals twice a month—a startling number given his town’s tiny population. Nearly 300 souls call Conetoe (pronounced “ka-‘nee-ta”) home. The predominantly African American hamlet is situated in North Carolina’s Edgecombe County, where a quarter of households live below the poverty line and heart disease kills more 20- to 39-year-olds than do car accidents. “I’ve closed too many coffins on young people,” Joyner, 64, says.
The pastor found it difficult to comfort the grieving: “How do you tell someone who’s just lost a child to poor nutrition that this was God’s plan when it was totally preventable? Who would hang out with that God?”
Driving home one day and beginning to doubt his own beliefs, Joyner pulled over and began to pray. “I heard a voice saying, ‘Maybe you’d get further with your eyes open,’” he remembers. He looked around, and all he saw was farmland. It gave him an idea: Get the kids involved.
Today, thanks to Joyner’s zeal, as well as organizations such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Conservation Fund, which supplied logistical and financial support, that small plot has transformed into the 21-acre Conetoe Family Life Center. Its mission: “Improve the health of the community by increasing access to healthy foods, increasing physical activities, and providing access to health services.” The local hospital, schools, and restaurants help the center by buying its salad greens, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, and other crops for their cafeterias and customers. A fourth of the produce is distributed free to church members.
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