The Dialogue with Jen Patterson
This feature is a question-and-answer session with a new Blount County Chamber member. So, here we go with our 134th installment visiting with Jen Patterson, CEO and co-founder of Century Harvest Farms Foundation, which was created to end food insecurity and to improve the health and wellness of our Rural East Tennessee Communities.
Describe what Century Harvest does. We are a non-profit farm that is improving the health and wellness of our rural East Tennessee communities through work centered programming and access to fresh produce. We achieve this by: 1. Connecting individuals, and families, to free, fresh produce and grass-fed beef, through our partnership with Second Harvest and other local food banks. 2. Providing opportunities to increased physical and mental health and wellness through our supportive programming and connecting to health resources in the community. 3. Creating a supportive work centered programming focused on upward mobility, called From the Ground Up program. 4. Share our grass-fed beef, and signature offerings with our East Tennessee Region. From seed to fork, our seasonal produce and jarred products, provide an experiential classroom for participants in our work centered programming. Because all of our products are created by our program participants, all proceeds from your purchase go directly back into From the Ground Up Programming.
How did you get started? In our rural East Tennessee farming communities, the very places where crops are grown to feed the world, many face food insecurity and the issues associated with it. Century Harvest Farms Foundation grew out of the desire to fill that gap. After almost a decade of sustainable farming and producing grass-fed beef, owner of Century Harvest Farms, Chris Burger, wanted to share the farm with his community. In 2017, Chris met then service coordinator for individuals experiencing homelessness, Jen Patterson, and they shared the belief that all individuals and families deserve access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food. Upon result, they piloted a small-scale program that taught agricultural skills and gave participants access to fresh produce. After piloting the program, they knew that the needs of the community were far greater than just food. During this time, they decided to expand past the program to create Century Harvest Farms Foundation that is focused on empowering and engaging with people from all backgrounds to improve the health and wellness of our rural East Tennessee communities through work centered programming and access to fresh produce.
What is your background? I first started assisting those experiencing food insecurity through my studies as an Interdisciplinary Anthropology Student at the University of Akron, located in Akron, OH. During my Senior Year, I focused, along with 4 other Anthropology Students, on food insecurity in the Akron School Districts. We started our year-long study by interviewing students, and parents, studying what students ate during lunch, monitoring student physical activity before, and after lunch, and worked with school nutritionists to understand what students were being given for breakfast and lunch. We found that the students were consuming over 1,500 calories at lunch and around 1,000 at breakfast. Most of the student's families were living with limited resources, so we also found that students were eating over 1,000 calories at home because they did not have access to nutrient dense food. Upon our discovery, we then worked with the schools to change their food system and helped them to select more nutritionally dense lunch provider. Upon graduation, I started utilizing my passion and education to help non-profits and government agencies to build programs, study rates of hunger and homelessness, and create case management plans for individuals living with limited resources. During my time serving my community, I learned the best practices for organizational creation and development. I believe that there is still so much to learn in regards as to how I can serve my community. I will continue to study, listen, and learn, to ensure that I have the best tools to better my non-profit for the benefit of our region.
Who is your mentor? My biggest supporter throughout my career has been my mother, Linda. Around the time I was 8 years old, I saw my mom assisting and advocating for families with children with disabilities, just like she did for my brother. She worked with school districts to ensure that educational plans were developed properly, that students were getting the best education that they could receive, and helped to teach teachers how to best work with students with disabilities. All the while, she was inspiring me to want to grow up to do the same. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Fast-forward 20 years. I took a leap of faith to leave my job in Ohio and join AmeriCorps, in Knoxville, TN. I sold all of my things and moved to a state that I never thought I would live in. My mother encouraged me that this was what God wanted for my life and that there was something bigger waiting for me in Tennessee. During the last 4 years here, she has helped me with composing some hard emails and proposals, proofed reports, was a soundboard when it came to hard days, pushed me when I needed it, prayed for me when I was faced with hard decisions, and celebrated large and small victories with me. I could not begin to think where I would be without her, and I am so blessed to have such a knowledgeable, passionate, hardworking, and experienced woman as my mother.
Describe your customers. We are a non-profit, who also runs a social enterprise, so we have both customers and participants. Our participants, whom we serve in our non-profit programming, are individuals with limited resources and barriers to employment. Our participants are looking to gain soft work skills to get back into the workforce, and want to improve their overall wellness. Our customers are individuals who want to support their local economy, find value in food grown and raised in their own backyard, and who want to make an impact with their purchase.
What environments impact your business? As a non-profit, we solely revolve around the needs of our community. Below are some of the issues in our community that we have identified, and what we revolve our efforts around. Food Insecurity Individuals and families who live in rural areas often face hunger at higher rates, in part because of the unique challenges living remotely presents. These challenges include an increased likelihood of food deserts and food insecurity with the nearest grocery store or food bank potentially hours away. Many individuals living in rural communities have limited access to transportation, which makes getting to work and acquiring food so much harder to do. Many job opportunities located in Rural East Tennessee are more concentrated in low-wage industries, and these areas have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. This can make hunger in rural areas a unique challenge: -200,000 individuals and families in East Tennessee are experiencing food insecurity. -56% of individuals in Tennessee fall below the SNAP threshold at 130% of poverty. -16.9% of individuals in East Tennessee are food insecure. (Feeding America.2015) Limited Physical and Mental Health Resources for Limited Income Families Currently, in the United States, health care is not looked at as a necessity. Which means that consistent, affordable, and sustainable health care is not accessible to rural limited resource individuals and families. Without access to healthy food sources, education on the importance of healthy eating, and the lack of affordable health care, all of which make an impact on the mental health, limited resource individuals and families fall into a cycle of disparity and utilize a large proportion of health care resources. Non-Inclusive Employment Opportunities and Workforce Development Programs There are many individuals in our communities that need and desire employment but do not know where they could find employment based upon their background, current ability, or mental health state. These individuals desire and deserve, equal opportunity and access to employment, so that they are able to sustain and better their quality of life. Many individuals that seek employment, but have a hard time obtaining employment include; individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals coming out of incarceration, individuals within the intellectual and developmental disability community, individuals in recovery, and refugees and immigrants from other countries. As these statistics rise, the needs will rise, and the more services we will need to be able to provide to individuals in our community. In turn, our non-profit will need more funding to assist those in need.
Name three things you wish you knew when you started. 1. My heart wants to help, more than I professionally should. I get close to a lot of the individuals that I serve, which means that I learn their stories. Some of the individuals that I serve are experiencing homelessness, come from abusive backgrounds, and are living without the resources that they need to survive. I want to be able to help every single person that walks in my door with everything that they are experiencing, but I have to stay in my lane and only assist them with what our program provides. Sometimes that is really hard, and there are days that I go home and feel emotionally drained. But, knowing that these individuals have access to other hardworking programs throughout our region, keeps me going and my heart in tact. 2. You can't be buddy buddy with your employees. Being a younger CEO, it's hard to not want to join your co-workers after work for a beverage or coffee. There always has to be that professional line drawn. 3. You will put in more than 40 hours a week, especially when you start a non-profit.
What do you enjoy the business? The best part of running my non-profit is seeing my participants and their growth during our program. There is nothing better than seeing a person so happy, so content, so alive, after achieving a task, I love watching an individual grow, right before my eyes. I love to see the love that they feel for others, and for themselves, flourish. They are the reason that I do what I do. Without them, my non-profit would not exist.