Path out of poverty: Jubilee Project creates opportunities for people to help themselves

Path out of poverty: Jubilee Project creates opportunities for people to help themselves

It’s a rainy Tuesday night at First Rogersville United Methodist Church, and the fellowship hall is packed. The church always has good attendance on Manna Kitchen night, when the congregation provides a free supper for the community.

But tonight, the people will get something extra along with their spaghetti and salad. The Jubilee Project wants to talk to them about growing their own vegetables.

“If you do grow your own garden, you will know for sure that the food is safe and doesn’t have any pesticides or chemicals,” says Elizabeth Malayter, in her after-dinner presentation. “And it’s free, except for the water you put on it.”

Malayter hands out surveys with questions like, “If you had help, would you be willing to grow a garden?” Or, “If you had help, would you be willing to do more cooking with fresh vegetables?”

It’s just a small step in a huge effort, Malayter admits later. But that’s what Jubilee Project has done for 18 years: Take small steps to build complicated networks that ultimately help people care for themselves.

“We try to think of a lot of ways to help people gain more capacity and abilities to help themselves,” said Steve Hodges, a United Methodist missionary and executive director of the organization based in Sneedville, Tenn. “That could be by building assets through youth ministry, teaching people how to grow gardens or can their own foods, enabling farmers to sell their own produce – lots of empowering projects.”

Especially during the last few weeks, Holston members may best know Jubilee Project as the organization receiving food, blankets, clothing, and funds for a Christmas outreach in one of Tennessee’s poorest counties. (The Call, 10/30/09)

However, Jubilee also organizes a myriad of ministries that are less visible.

Malayter, for example, is working on a Food Wealth Project that involves First Rogersville UMC. Jubilee Project has applied for a $300,000 USDA grant, which will be used to offer classes in gardening, food preservation, cooking, nutrition, and money management to low-income persons in Hawkins and Hancock Counties. 

In addition to the classes, Jubilee will set up systems to help students complete the self-help process. “For example, if we’re setting up classes on canning, then we’ll also set up a co-op to help them get canning products and borrow a canner,” says Malayter, regional sustainable agriculture coordinator.

Some of the classes could be held at Holston churches. First Rogersville's Manna Kitchen participants were surveyed because the church already has a garden providing vegetables for Tuesday night suppers. Some of the Manna Kitchen diners are allowed to use the garden to grow their own vegetables. The congregation is considering opening up the garden to the community, according to Jim Collier, Manna Kitchen organizer.

"We hope to make a decision by the beginning of the year," Collier said. "We're looking forward to working with Jubilee Project and want to assist the gardeners all that we can."

Making progress

Malayter is a former chef who came with her husband from New Jersey to live and work on a 25-acre organic farm near Rogersville. She encountered Jubilee Project when it grouped local small farmers for the purpose of helping them sell fresh produce to schools.

“I come to this business from the ‘wanting to cook’ perspective,” she says. “I wish every child could have real food on a daily basis. Maybe we can teach them that a fresh apple is a better snack than an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie.”

The Malayter farm is one of 18 growers comprising CAFÉ, or Clinch Appalachian Farmers Enterprise. Since May 2008, CAFÉ has sold home-grown fruits and vegetables to Rogersville city schools, serving about 650 students.

In fact, Jubilee Project is responsible for creating the first so-called Farm-2-School Project in the state. Hodges worked with legislators to pass Tennessee’s first farm-to-school bill in 2008, enabling it to join ¾ of all U.S. states with legislation encouraging schools to buy fresh, local foods.

Jubilee Project’s goal was for CAFÉ to also sell produce to other schools in Hawkins and Hancock Counties -- and they have, with limited success.

“But then we ran into all sorts of obstacles with distribution and the growing season that really made us think through the solutions,” Hodges says. “We are making modest progress, but what we’re doing is part of a larger, longer process.”

While the whole country tries to figure out how to get more nutritious foods to school children, CAFÉ is currently more successful at selling eggs, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and peppers to restaurants in Rogersville and Kingsport. The CAFÉ farmers plan to develop relationships with area hospitals and retirement homes, too.

“We won’t give up on the schools,” declares Hodges, while Malayter hopes to introduce students to the glory of good food through classroom gardening and cooking projects.

In the meantime, Janis Price, a CAFÉ grower and member of Centenary UMC, Morristown District, says that Jubilee’s “modest progress” is making a difference.

“I don’t believe pesticides and herbicides are good for you,” she says, “and we appreciate that through CAFÉ, the small growers are finding markets for our produce.”

“What we are working on is just huge,” Malayter says, “and it reaches into all corners of the community, if we are even a little bit effective.

"If we can do anything that is good for the region, good for those who produce it, and good for those who consume it, then we've done our job," she said.


From a local foods perspective, Jubilee Project is helping Holston Conference address a commitment made in 2008, when Annual Conference members voted to promote local food self-sufficiency in all 904 churches. (Read the resolution.)

In the September 2008 edition of The Call, Hodges reminded church members that supporting local food self-sufficiency is Biblical:

“God says that because the land is his, we are to care for the land the way he directs,” Hodges said, referring to Leviticus 25. God also said that his people are to be given “extra help as they leave economic slavery and move toward self-sufficiency.”

Jubilee Project also supports local foods and local farmers through its Clinch-Powell Community Kitchens, which are available for low-cost rental in an effort to encourage local businesses. Heidi Hutchison, operations and finance manger, says the kitchens offer a “win-win situation.”

“We can help people process the foods they have grown, and we can help other people by hiring them to help with the process. To the extent that you can peel a potato, you’re good to go,” says Hutchison, a former bed-and-breakfast owner from Wisconsin.

Yet, the tough economy recently forced Jubilee Project to reduce kitchen staffing and availability by half, in a county projected to reach 20 percent unemployment by January. Other Jubilee ministries are also suffering, including Appalachian Spring Cooperative, which for the first time this year will not be developing Christmas gift baskets.

The co-op is an association of 20 growers and small entrepreneurs who use the community kitchens to develop and sell relish, salsa, barbecue sauce, sweet potato butter, and other food products. Last year, a Food City store began selling some of the products through a pilot arrangement with Jubilee. (Kingsport Times-News, 10/24/08)

“One of the co-op members is a former tobacco farmer who’s now growing fruits and vegetables to make jams and salsas,” says Hutchison.

Since 1997, Hancock County has dropped from 493 tobacco farmers to 37, according to the county mayor’s office. In the last decade, the county has dropped from 500 manufacturing jobs to 25.

Other programs that help carry out the Jubilee Project mission of “community service, development and empowerment” include an eight-year-old leadership program and three-year-old drug use prevention coalition, both in Hancock County. Both were facilitated and led by Diantha Hodges, Jubilee’s associate director and a United Methodist missionary. Randy Hildebrant, also a United Methodist missionary, leads the youth and work camp ministries.

Sharing with Sudan

Jubilee Project has two full-time staff and six part-time staff. On Dec. 1, Jubilee began a management transition. Steve and Diantha Hodges have requested that the General Board of Global Ministries reassign them to serve in south Sudan, which may happen during the first half of 2010.

“We will be missionaries doing what we already do in the U.S.,” said Steve Hodges, who co-led Holston’s eighth mission team to Sudan in November. It was his second trip to the area; his first was in February 2009.

In Sudan, Diantha Hodges will focus on health education, “especially around birth, because Diantha is a midwife.” Steve Hodges will focus on developing small businesses and sustainable farming – “growing crops that will meet nutritious needs.”

Hutchison and Malayter will serve as Jubilee Project's interim co-directors: Hutchinson will oversee community development in addition to her previous duties. Malayter will oversee economic development in addition to her previous duties. Steve Hodges is now the "outgoing director."

Prayers, financial support, and good ideas from others will help Jubilee continue to carry out its mission, Hodges said.

“I really hope people understand that Jubilee Project will continue to do what it has done, and that is, to help people build the capacity to help themselves. That’s the plan, and it will continue.”

“We’re not just serving people by feeding them,” said Hutchison. “We’re serving them by pointing them on a path out of poverty.”

To support Jubilee Project, make a check to your local church and write "Advance Special #781350-4" on the memo line. Or write for suggestions on other ways to help.