I had the privilege and honor of sitting down with the, Emily Egge, the Executive Director of Durham based SEEDS last month. SEEDS is a non-profit organization that to quote their mission statement, “teaches respect for life, for the earth and for each other through gardening and growing food.”
If you are familiar with SEEDS you will feel a warm glow in your heart simply by reading those words. If you don’t yet know SEEDS, but you’re Durham, they will resonate with you. Located in the heart of the city at 706 Gilbert Street, they work actively and daily to make our city and the world a better place. They shine a light. They have built an oasis. They are aligned with those who want to build a movement. With people who know what food deserts are, who know how joblessness and homelessness can effect diet and personal sense of worth and well-being. With those understand how important youth education and community activism is.
At the center of SEEDS is the garden. It is an actualization as well as a metaphor for what they do. It is both simple and revolutionary. Be the change you wish to see.
The garden in their newly remodeled Gilbert Street site helps support one of SEEDS many beneficent programs, DIG, Durham Inner–city Gardeners. It is a youth driven, adult mentored urban farming leadership development program.
The program was just ramping up for the Summer when Egge and I met at Daisy Cakes. It aims to find students in need through relationships with local schools and guidance counselors. Students are part of multi-step process that includes both a Summer and year-round program. It includes working the ¼ acre market garden at Gilbert Street from the seed forward. SEEDS teaches students sustainable practices.
Moreover not only do the kids in the program grow vegetables SEEDS furnishes the program a table at the Durham Farmer’s Market to sell the fruits of their labors teaching the basics business, customer service, cash handling, and the like. But equally important SEEDS is home to a full kitchen. Their students in the DIG program learn to cook with what they have grown, they build community, healthy food ways and habits breaking bread with their peers.
The SEEDS folk believe these Saturday night dinners learning how to cook with food they have grown will build into lifelong routines of healthy diets for these young students. SEEDS has learned over time through experience that students are far more likely to be “adventurous eaters” if they have grown and cooked something. The urge to participate continues, they are much more willing to try something they grew than they might otherwise be.
Egge told me a terrific story about their “Healthy Food-athon” which is a 30 day challenge to SEEDS students (and anyone who wants to participate) to make mindful eating decisions. Students collect pledges for decisions such as cutting soda and fast-food out of their diet for the duration of the challenge. Because Egge and SEEDS often target students in at-risk or marginalized Durham populations their families may not have time, funds, or inclination to be supportive.
One such student, we will call him Kaleb, Egge recalled, told her of being taken to fast food restaurants by his family while on the “Healthy Food-athon” and being told he could it that or nothing. A dedicated young man, who had tasted veggies he had grown, resisted. He went from being pre-diabetic when he started at SEEDS to 15-20lbs lighter and a teen who given the choice will select pasta with fresh veggies over a burger and fries.
In the concentric circles I frequently see from practitioners of strong ethics, Egge lives her life in a manner similar to SEEDS gardens. She didn’t naturally fall into this role, raised in Alexandria, VA she was a high school athlete. Yes her family had a garden where they grew tomatoes, but young Emily was more interested in the Smithsonian rockets and mastadons than the goings on in her families yard.
Like so many Durhamanians, Egge arrived here through Duke. After an undergraduate education at University of Virginia where she excelled on the rowing team and studied non-profits and economics. She went to get her Masters in Sports Administration at the University of Louisville. Egge’s fusion of athletic prowess and leadership skills led her to coaching rowing as an assistant first at Georgetown than for five years at Duke.
If you didn’t know it amidst all of their other athletic successes from Women’s and Men’s basketball to golf to volleyball and more, Duke also has excellent rowing. They just opened a new boathouse on Lake Michie in Bahama.
Egge, while coaching at Duke, was looking for more ways to give back, more way to be involved in the community. She had long had an interest in Olympic sports and amateurism. In Durham that morphed into creating a charity race for our community with four of her close friends.
Pac, Jeff, Jon, Heather, and Emily were workout buddies who may have been a bit masochistic in their athletic pursuits according to Egge. Long hours spent together in various athletic training and hanging out at 9th Street fave, “Dain’s Place,” led to the birth of an idea, “The Doughman.”
For those of you who don’t recall, “The Doughman” is fundraising race where four more or less otherwise normal humans agree to race in relay format with each team member performing an individual eating+athletic leg culminating in a final team eating+sprint leg to the finish line. The race comprises 1 bike leg, 1 aquatic activity leg, and 2 run legs. So that’s eat+run, eat+swim, eat+bike, all while raising funds for good cause, most recently the Durham Public Schools Hub Farm.
The Doughman, although on hiatus in 2014, has already raised over $100,000 for the causes it has supported. And unlike the Krispy Kreme challenge “The Doughman” is not all about gorging and decadence. In fact, vomiting renders a team ineligible to win.
In the past The Doughman has benefitted SEEDS and the DIG Program. Egge herself started as a SEEDS volunteer. (Incidentally, they are always looking for more volunteers, follow this link.) She attributes some of her passion for the cause to the people she found at SEEDS, including one particularly inspirational person in the soul of Bekah Resnick, who was the Garden Manager of the on-going collective project at The Durham Farmer’s Market known as “The Garden of Eatin’.”
The Garden of Eatin’ is a collective maintained charitable projects between Durham Central Park and SEEDS, underwritten by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, generously maintained by a plethora of Durham gardeners and landscapers including Frank Hyman, Michelle DeRose, Meadow Sweet Gardens, Bountiful Backyards, and Sol Food Mobile Farm, among others.
The remarkable thing about The Garden of Eatin, beyond it being maintained entirely through volunteers, is its sustainability, everything in it has a purpose. Plants that are not harvested fend off bugs naturally and replenish the soil. The garden demonstrates the innate flaws in our chain grocery’s mass produced monoculture through example.
The strains of the Aughts brought back the Victory Garden, along with scrapbooking, home renovating, and other low cost self-improvement. Egge has a home garden, but she says it has to be very low touch because she doesn’t spend a lot of daylight hours at home. Like many non-profit directors, hers is a packed schedule from fundraising to event coordinating to responding to email and other correspondence, plus SEEDS after seventeen years of existence bought their building in 2010, and broke ground on an a big upgrade and expansion to their physical space in November 2012 which just finished, everything from the offices, to the kitchen, to the garden itself, along with an indoor hall suitable for hosting their own charity functions as well as for rental purposes.
As such, Egge battles with local squirrels over who spends more time in her home garden. She says though that the living example of SEEDS is a constant reminder. The way grocery stores package fresh herbs is a wasteful: in a hard to use before it spoils portion, and hardly flavorful when compared to breaking fresh leaves off our your own plants. Same goes for tomatoes, kids and even adults who have only eaten grocery store bought, cross-country shipped vegetables are often shocked by the flavor of a squash or a tomato fresh out of the garden. In comparison, they veritably explode.
Egge, who naturally biked to our meeting, she has been more than two years without a car, highly functioning in Durham, listed for the me the multifarious benefits of growing herbs. They are perennial. They are decorative beautiful. They exude a delicious smell. And they are readily available to cook!
SEEDS and its director, Emily Egge, are cut from similar cloth, practical and generous. Gardeners are inevitably hardworking as the Earth takes no days off. The rest of us need Sabbath.
SEEDS is doing something revolutionary and paradigm shifting, demonstrating that being the change we wish to see in the world isn’t about throwing rocks, in fact, it might be more about moving them. And it is about moving our hearts and changing our mindsets.
One final example is SEEDS long standing tradition of an outside the fence garden. This means at their main site on Gilbert Street some edible vegetables and herbs are deliberately grown outside the fence of their main garden so that they might be available to the public and passers-by, specifically those folks in the lower income community that surrounds the garden site.
I find this especially poignant given that twice recently I have been at Durham public charitable functions where I have noticed homeless or low-income folks mixing with the crowd of hipsters simply to get a bite to eat from the free food available. Recently, we were reminded at the Clarion Content that frequently more children go hungry in the Summer than Winter because of the lack of free school lunches.
Egge and SEEDS are on the frontline. The benefits of contributing to the common good reciprocally reverberate to us all by making the world a better place. Egge and SEEDS fit naturally in Durham or perhaps given the age of the organization, Durham fits naturally around them. There is an ethic in this place.