Graham gardener helps fight local food insecurity

Ashlie Thomas plants a seed in the Graham community.

After moving from South Carolina four years ago, Thomas said she began to realize that the variety of dining options in Graham was limited compared to surrounding cities like Greensboro, Chapel Hill and Durham. Now she’s using her love of the outdoors to find her niche here in Alamance County.

Thomas grows over 80 different herbs and over 40 different fruits and vegetables in her garden. It is a Certified natural habitat, which she got approved by the National Wildlife Federation. She is currently preparing for the fall season by planting vegetables such as broccoli, collards and beets. Thomas grows in her garden year-round and said she’s always busy. Fall is her favorite growing season because it requires minimal effort for a big harvest.

“We grow all these things, these cruciferous vegetables that are really good in soups and as sides or even wraps,” Thomas said. “So there’s a lot of versatility for the produce that will be growing in the fall and winter.”

Thomas said there’s a misconception about fall gardening because people assume everything dies when temperatures drop.

“You can actually get some things that usually just slip under the radar,” Thomas said. “We don’t know that they grow best in the fall and winter, especially in our climate during that time.”

As she prepares for the fall, she plans to give back and deepen her connections to organizations in the region. Thomas is a graduate student at North Carolina A&T State University majoring in Food and Nutrition Sciences. Her research focuses on the implementation of strategies to combat food insecurity. Thomas said the problem is not “one size fits all” and that gardening is about finding safe food on a very individual level.


“Not only can gardening provide better access to some of these more nutrient-dense foods, but it also helps indirectly educate ourselves about what’s out there that I can eat, and we’re more inclined to actually sample those things,” Thomas said. “I believe that community gardens, backyard gardens, even trying to grow your own food or learning how to grow your own food, can help raise the bar a little bit to maybe make a little bit more accessible for people.”

One of the organizations Thomas works with is Benevolent Farm. She is a board member and frequently works with Kristen Powers, the nonprofit’s executive director. Powers said they were fortunate to work with Thomas because of her expertise in food access, health and nutrition and her size Instagram The following is a great tool to communicate and convey this information.

“She was able to transfer the skills she learned through this effort, combining our educational platform on Instagram with her gardening to move to Benevolence and how we better share stories or better share what’s going on on our farm, especially given the community we work with,” said Powers. “So that was a really nice mutual learning experience, and she’s very good at partnerships, very good at building communities.”

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Powers said that food can easily be taken for granted when people have access to it all the time. Her organization is about helping formerly imprisoned women. She said food is not a guarantee for people coming home from jail or jail because they may not have a steady income or they may have been denied government benefits. Powers said the restriction could vary from six months to a lifetime.

“A lot of the public doesn’t even know it’s a system issue,” Powers said. “I think the area between Ashlie and her work and Benevolence is working with food. It’s not just about how we get food into the hands of the people who need it, but also how do we solve our infrastructure problems that make it difficult to get that food in the first place?”

Thomas agrees that systemic changes still need to be made, like how people are educated or how transportation is provided, but gardening is a small step in that direction. But there are also steps students can take. Thomas encourages students to connect with their community gardens and break the stigma of sourcing food from a pantry or bank.

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“Food is food. Food should be available to everyone, food should be accessible to everyone,” Thomas said. “Indeed, make a habit of walking with your friends to get the groceries you need. Also for friends who may not have access to groceries. So use these resources when you can and remember this is completely normal.”

Elon newcomer Abigail Wiatrek is a Kernodle Center for Civic Life volunteer and said campus kitchen and Loy farm Both will start their first cooking and volunteering this week. She said volunteering through these organizations can help meet the needs of both the Elon and surrounding communities.

“It leads to a lot of really good engagement in understanding where the food is coming from and understanding behind the instability that comes with food insecurity and addressing that problem,” Wiatrek said.

For anyone interested in gardening, Thomas suggests starting small with just one plant and growing from there. She said her garden is open to everyone and is a sanctuary for creatures large and small. Thomas said she hopes her holistic approach to wellness can bring healing as much as giving back what comes from it.

“This is a very healing place. It’s a place of grounding and a place where we become aware of our place in the world,” said Thomas. “That means loving and being compassionate and all those things.”

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