With hopes of connecting people through food and faith, Blackburn Community Outreach in Todd is searching for community members to participate in conversations around a dinner table.

“I think it’s a lost art for people to actually sit around the table and have conversations around food,” said Jaime Plude, the program coordinator for Blackburn Community Outreach. “It’s an opportunity to get closer to ourselves, others and the land to talk about what’s going on in our community related to food.”

Blackburn Community Outreach is hosting eight sessions of an event called Life Around the Table — based on a framework provided by an organization of the same name. Starting Jan. 16, the group will meet every other Thursday through April from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Blackburn House on the grounds of the Blackburn Chapel in Todd. Plude said the hope is to have eight to 10 people participate in Life Around the Table to engage in discussions surrounding food and community with a scripture component.

Plude said one of the conversations will be about food justice, which is the belief that all people should have “access to food that’s fresh, healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate.” Other topics Plude mentioned were the issue of food deserts, racial disparity within food systems and how knowing where one’s food comes from can impact a rural community.

The organization is providing the meal for each session with locally sourced products, Plude said. Participants are not required to pay a fee, but may bring side dishes if they choose. Plude added that attendees do not necessarily have to live in Todd to participate.

The group will pray together before each meal, and the scripture discussed will be related to the theme of food, Plude said. People of any faith tradition are invited to participate; the only thing Blackburn Community Outreach requires is that participants commit to attending all eight sessions.

“It’s important that we have the same people for all eight sessions so that we can create a safe space to be able to talk,” Plude said. “Somebody might not have that type of background and that’s OK too,” Plude said. “That’s kind of the whole point — to not only voice what we feel and believe in, but also to listen to our community and what they feel and believe in, and how that relates to what we eat and do around the table.”

Plude said the group has noticed that churches often come together to eat together in fellowship, but the food options are often unhealthy.

“The focus hasn’t been on the food, it’s been more on the fellowship,” Plude said. “Which is wonderful, but there needs to be more of a focus on the actual food we’re consuming and the healthiness that’s involved within our churches and congregations in community. There’s a connection between what we eat, the land and God.”

The overall goal is that participants will ultimately take the idea back to their friends and family to revive the practice of gathering around a table for food and conversation, Plude said.

Blackburn Community Outreach’s Life Around the Table event comes after two other projects launched by the group. The organization first completed the initial phase of the Todd Listening Project in 2016, when volunteers conducted interviews of Todd community members. Out of these conversations, it was discovered that the community had a desire for some form of a community hub for socialization and that they shared a variety of concerns surrounding food.

The first round of the Todd Listening Project produced the idea for a food cart — called Todd’s Table — that now serves as a produce stand for locals to sell products and produce from their gardens, Plude said.

The second phase of the Todd Listening Project concluded in December 2018, when the group produced a cookbook of recipes and stories from local residents. As a result of the Todd Listening Project, Plude said Blackburn Community Outreach analyzed the data it had collected to determine what the community’s greatest needs were.

Last April, Plude attended a four-day immersive facilitator training at Camp Kanuga near Hendersonville. The training was led by Life Around the Table — a ministry of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Plude said Blackburn Community Outreach’s Life Around the Table discussions are based on the program, but that the Todd group has also allowed for the conversations to include topics related to food that affect the rural communities in Ashe and Watauga counties.

More about the Life Around the Table organization can be found at lifearoundthetable.org.

Plude said she’s committed to helping vulnerable populations, and became involved with the Blackburn Community Outreach a year ago. She added that about 20 years ago she helped establish a mobile food market that served as a soup kitchen — called the Blue Bus Project — to feed those who were homeless within the Asheville community.

“I believe that everybody deserves and should have access to healthy, available, fresh foods,” Plude said.

She added that Blackburn Community Outreach is working toward purchasing a truck to start a mobile food market. The group conducted a pop-up mobile food market toward Ashe County at Baldwin Community Church in Todd, as the area is located within a food desert.

“The only available place is a Dollar General within 10 miles in that area near Todd,” Plude said. “We would like to be able to make healthy affordable produce available to everybody.”

Plude said Blackburn Community Outreach would be open to the idea of hosting other Life Around the Table events in the future based on assessment of the initial event. The group was still looking to fill a few slots for the Life Around the Table event as of Jan. 2. For more information, contact Plude at jaimecommunityoutreach@gmail.com. More information on Blackburn Community Outreach can be found at www.blackburncommunityoutreach.org.

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