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Building trust and listening to community at Blackburn Community Outreach, Inc.

Nestled on the border between Ashe and Watauga counties sits the community of Todd. Here, Blackburn Community Outreach, Inc. plays an integral role in mobilizing their community for social, economic, and environmental vitality. Programs include a community garden, a one-year residential internship, and the Todd Listening Project.

One of the core focuses of Blackburn is addressing the severe lack of food access in Todd, a community of about 2,000 people, and surrounding communities. Regardless of affluence, there is nowhere to purchase fresh food in Todd. The closest convenience store is six miles away and the closest grocery store is 12 miles in any direction.

About half of the students at the elementary school in Todd are enrolled in free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Over the summer, these students lose access to the consistent meals they received during the school year. To fill this nutrition gap, Blackburn offered biweekly door-to-door delivery of fresh foods and non-perishables to families in their community.

“We provided the best we have— chemical-free produce grown right in our community garden,” said Jamie McGirt-Gundlach, the community organizing and program coordinator at Blackburn. “We also delivered whole blocks of cheese instead of Velveeta, and a gallon of milk instead of powdered milk.”

At Blackburn, decisions are made by starting with listening to the voiced needs and wants of the Todd community. Each year, the Todd Listening Project conducts interviews with around 100 community members from across various backgrounds, asking them the same 10 questions. Blackburn then takes this data, compiles it into an easy-to-digest newsletter to share, and brainstorms potential projects based on the communities’ voiced concerns.

Recently, the Todd Listening Project found food access was a problem for the entire community — even the most affluent. Due to the towns remote location and the local general store closing, Todd residents from across the socioeconomic spectrum desired a convenient place to convene and purchase fresh food.

“For that reason, we thought we should set up a mobile farm stand so that fresh produce could be offered in Todd and also in the communities we have been serving through the summer food program,” said McGirt-Gundlach.

Todd’s Table was born. Rather than door-to-door delivery of food boxes, Blackburn shifted to a mobile market that operates like a farmers market. Blackburn sells produce from its garden to anyone in the community, and offers vouchers to lower-income families who were previously receiving door-to-door food box deliveries.

McGirt-Gundlach stressed Blackburn’s belief that it is okay to experiment, and it is okay to fail.

The voucher program did not work. At the end of the day, the same amount of produce that used to be given away was left unsold at Todd’s Table. So Blackburn once again started bi-weekly delivery of food boxes to the families they used to serve.

“We are open to failing when it comes to building trust. This made us ask: Do we have a good enough relationship with those households? Do we know if it is appropriate for them to drive five miles out of their way to get fresh produce?,” McGirt-Gundlach said. “Building trust with families we don’t know well is a matter of us being transparent and having integrity to our core values.”

The most recent findings from the Todd Listening Project have informed new decisions — including the development of micro-grants for community entrepreneurs, and the establishment of a $20 credit towards fresh produce that can be used by anyone in the community at Todd’s Table.

McGirt-Gundlach described Blackburn’s approach to community development as “holistic service.”

“This means we are trying to meet the voiced needs of the community through our work on the Todd Listening Project, but also acknowledging that our community has the assets, gifts, skills and aspirations to address their own needs,” she said.

Blackburn Community Outreach, Inc. is one of many examples of the role that faith-based organizations are playing in their community and meeting expressed needs. Regardless of their next project, Blackburn holds their core values and the voices of their community at the center of decision-making.

“Our slow, intentional work of engaging community members where they are, with the skills they have, grows into really fruitful engagement where residents are behind all the work we are doing,” McGirt-Gundlach said.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.