Giving Matters: Mill Village Farms grows healthy food, opportunities and hope

How do you bring fresh produce to a food desert, employment opportunities to young people and hope to a community? In 2012, Mill Village Farms began by harnessing local resources to turn vacant properties into urban gardens.

Mill Village Farms and its sister organizations, Village Launch, Village Engage and Village Wrench, offer targeted interventions to combat systemic injustice, said Dan Weidenbenner, executive director of Mill Community Ministries, the nonprofits’ umbrella organization.

“Greenville is one of the hardest places to achieve upward mobility,” Weidenbenner said. “A large part of what drives us is ensuring that everyone in our community has access to opportunities to unleash their talents, learn new skills and be successful.”

Mill Village Farms provides locally sourced produce grown on small, sustainably managed farms in areas where access to fresh food is limited. Through a partnership with FoodShareSC, MVF offers FoodShare Greenville food boxes, each including about a dozen fresh fruits and vegetables valued at $20-$25. Boxes are distributed at churches, clinics and community centers for $10 or $5 for SNAP recipients.

A youth group of Mill Village Farms workers.

“With the pandemic and economic crisis, even more families face the difficult choice of how to get healthy food,” Weidenbenner said. “Clinics are now screening for food insecurity. A doctor can prescribe a box of produce as preventive health care.“

MVF provides employment for youth aged 14–18, introducing them to sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship and job skills, and partners with Village Launch to offer a 10-week youth entrepreneurship program. Although the youth program is scaled back due to COVID-19, the FoodShare program has grown, serving more people in 2020 than the previous two years combined.

“We’ve been able to scale up our food program in large part because people have been so generous,” Weidenbenner said.

Mill Village’s other social enterprises have been busy as well. Village Launch, which started out making micro loans to help entrepreneurs turn side hustles into full-time jobs, has evolved into a small business training incubator. The Village Wrench bike shop has seen increased business with people spending more time at home, Weidenbenner said.

“We repair bikes and sell refurbished bikes and new biking accessories,” he said. “The money you spend in our shop supports people who are working to get a reliable bike.”

MCM operates with support from area churches and other donors, including a $3,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greenville.

CFG donors John and Mary Braeunig learned about MVF shortly after its inception through an article in the Greenville Journal. They met Weidenbenner and offered the use of the property in front of their Easley home, with the understanding that they would go forward on a year-by-year basis.

“We supported his ideas of mentoring kids, giving them a chance to earn and learn a work ethic that will serve them for the rest of their lives,” John Braeunig said. “That was six or seven years ago, so we are definitely committed.”

Youth work at Serenity Farm.

Since then, the couple has enjoyed getting to know students, interns and managers who work on the farm. They’ve hosted fundraising dinners and were impressed with the students who practiced public speaking skills by sharing what they had learned. 

“To see the changes in the young people from the beginning of the summer to the end is amazing,” Mary Braeunig said. “It’s a lot of fun for us, and I think the kids like coming out in the country.”

Liz Seman, CFG board chair, said, “People cannot survive, much less thrive, without food and hope. The Community Foundation is proud to support Mill Village Farms, as their work perfectly aligns with our vision of a thriving community where everyone can reach their full potential.”

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