Emptea Bowls returns for fifth year

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

It seems unlikely that a single bowl could help provide nourishment for a significant portion of the community, but that’s the concept behind an annual fundraiser for the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain.

Emptea Bowls returns for its fifth year on Sunday, July 29, and the money raised by the event goes toward the garden’s internship program.

Lucy Nelson, an intern at the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, harvests produce on July 3.

Each year the garden, which is located on the south side of Veterans Park, produces over 4,000 pounds of food, according to manager Diana McCall. The harvests include foods like lettuce, kale, turnip and collared greens. 

"I try to focus our energy on growing nutrient-dense vegetables," she said. "That includes things like wild vegetables like nettles and all sorts of things."

The bulk of that produce is given to Bounty & Soul, a Black Mountain-based non-profit organization that distributes it to under-served communities in Buncombe and McDowell Counties. 

"Because of their amazing program they're able to teach their clients how to best use this food," McCall said.  

The contributions from the community garden would not be possible without skilled interns, according to McCall. 

Lucy Nelson harvests leeks on a Tuesday morning in the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, which produces over 4,000 pounds of food annually.

“My position allows me to work 1,000 hours annually," McCall said. "So not only do we rely on volunteers, but we rely heavily on interns."

Volunteers typically come to the garden weekly, McCall said. 

"A lot of our volunteers are students at Warren Wilson College, high school students or kids on youth mission trips," she said. "Many of them come through here only once, or at the most two or three times. That means I have to provide a lot of education for a short period of time."

Interns like Lucy Nelson provide have a long-term presence. 

"With interns that knowledge continues to grow over the course of the summer, or fall, or whatever season they spend with me," McCall said. "Eventually they get to the point where I can leave them here to work with volunteer groups."

Nelson, a Black Mountain native and graduate of Owen High School, took a semester off from college and looked for a way to get involved in her community. She remembered visiting the garden for the first time as a sixth grader at Owen Middle and she volunteered at the garden during her freshman year in high school for seven weeks. 

"I started working here in February as a volunteer," she said. "I really enjoyed it and Diana is a great mentor."

However, working two jobs kept Nelson from spending as much time at the garden as she would've liked. McCall told her about the garden's paid internship. 

"I believe that interns should get paid," McCall said. "In our current economy I just don't think it's realistic to have people devote that much of their time for free."

Nelson welcomed the opportunity to have a bigger role in the garden. 

"It really felt like I was meant to be here," she said. "And it gave me the chance to spend more time here."

Nelson's experience in the garden with McCall has proven to be a valuable one. 

"Before this spring I feel like I was always a kid in this community and kids are provided for," she said. "But this spring gave me a chance to give back to the community, which makes me feel more connected to it."

While growing vegetables to feed people in her community has proven rewarding for Nelson, she's also been eager to help organize Emptea Bowls this year. The annual event is the garden's biggest fundraiser and supports a program that Nelson would like to see continue. 

"Diana's a professional facilitator, which is amazing to watch," she said. 

In its first four years the fundraiser was held at Dobra Tea, which closed on July 1. McCall decided to hold this year's Emptea Bowls in the garden. 

"We had a vision from the start," Nelson said. "We hope to see a diverse mix of people in this beautiful setting. We're hoping to bring in not only people who are familiar with the garden, but the people who haven't seen it before."

The event is based on the Empty Bowls model, which was started in Michigan in the early 90s. Participants can purchase a handmade tea bowl for $20 and sample teas while eating finger foods and listening to live music. 

"It will be great to give the community that experience right here in the garden," McCall said. "This is such a great place for this kind of event."

There will be information about the history of the garden, which was founded by Dr. John Wilson in 1997. 

"We'll have displays showing how much the garden has produced over the years and how many volunteers have worked here," Nelson said. "It will be great to share more information about it with the community."

Nelson is happy to help plan the event, which she hopes will help pave the way for another paid intern in the garden when she's finished. 

"Doing this internship has been a wonderful thing for me," she said. "I'd love to see others get the same opportunity in the future."