Social purpose is at the core of what we do at Perkins+Will. Through our Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), Perkins+Will contributes the equivalent of a 15-person firm working full-time to provide pro bono services to organizations in our communities who would otherwise not have such access. On occasion, Ideas + Buildings tells the stories behind this SRI work.
“Food is a basic human right and a fundamental need, something that none of us can live without.” Robin Emmons is direct when speaking about her work with Sow Much Good, the non-profit she founded in her backyard in 2008. “There are a lot of things that separate us, in terms of people, in terms of our education, socioeconomic status, our zip codes, but food is the one thing we share in common. None of us can live without that.”
Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sow Much Good (tagline: ‘Gardening for Life’) tries to address an increasingly serious problem in both cities and rural areas around the globe: food deserts. These are areas where affordable, healthy food is nearly impossible to obtain. The Boston native identifies with the issue on a very personal level. For years while she was commuting to her corporate job in downtown Charlotte, her mentally ill brother was living on the streets. When she was finally able to secure a residence for him at a facility, his mental health showed improvement while his physical health got even worse, a result of the processed and unhealthful foods being served. An avid gardener already, Robin began donating produce to the facility and his health dramatically improved. “The food is the medicine,” she summed up.
In the ensuing five years, Robin has been able to expand that mission out of her backyard thanks to a four-acre land donation by a local aggregate company. “I stood and I looked around the site and took a deep breath and they said ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think I’m in love – I’ll take it!’”
While the acreage came with some existing buildings (a ramshackle house and shed will eventually serve as an office, education facility, and demonstration kitchen), a proper venue to sell the weekly harvest did not yet exist. She knew a farm stand was the first structure that needed to operate, which is where Perkins+Will came into the picture.
“We just fell in love with Robin immediately,” Charlotte SRI leader David Wales reflected. “Her values just fell in line with Perkins+Will’s.” Serendipitous timing was also crucial: the Charlotte office was looking for a new SRI client just when Robin needed some gratis design services. Even though the work was offered at no cost to the client, the architectural design integrity did not suffer. The office held an internal design competition to come up with the design for the stand. Presenting it as a voluntary, rapid-fire studio project, the design brief was presented to the office on a Friday with proposals due Monday morning. The entire office then voted on their favorites that were then presented to Robin. “I never envisioned this stand would look like this,” Robin excitedly added, “this is so much more than I ever anticipated.”
Within two months (and thanks to a healthy dose of voluntary labor), the stand was up and running. But Robin does not want to stop there, and neither does Perkins+Will. “The dream is to renovate the house to create a demonstration kitchen; part of the education we do is cooking demonstrations, canning classes, nutritional lessons, healthy eating talks, and so we want to engage the community to create a meaningful space. We want to bring the community in to take control of their food source, and part of that is creating a learning space.” To that end, Perkins+Will is working with Robin to make sure that the next elements are held to the same design excellence the farm stand achieves, all while being conscious of a strict budget. Discussing Robin’s personal design taste, Wales added, “Even though she’s from Boston, Robin is very much a southerner, and we’re trying to bring that aesthetic of a southern farm, big front porch and all.” Alongside the house, there will eventually be a rehabbed shed space and modular chicken coop, expandable subject to demand.
Attesting to the broader implications of Robin’s work, Sow Much Good has been receiving attention outside of the Charlotte community. Recently, Robin was selected as one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year, joining nine other transformative people making a difference on local and global scales. With such exposure, Robin hopes to bring the pressing issues of food access for underserved populations to a more mainstream audience. Food deserts are not isolated to Charlotte, but with efforts like these, we can begin conceiving of a time when issues of food access will be a thing of the past.