Healing & Community in the Midst of a Food Desert


Healing & Community in the Midst of a Food Desert

 Written by Bianca Myrick, executive director of Virginia Association for Environmental Education

Do a search on Petersburg, Virginia, and you would find a wide variety of information that highlights a tale of two cities. 

Petersburg has a rich history that includes the Indigenous culture of Pocahontas Island, deep Revolutionary War ties, Civil War battle sites, and being a focal point of the Civil Rights movement. At one point, Petersburg had the largest number of free Black people of any Southern city at a time when 89% of Black people living in Virginia were enslaved. 

On the contrary, you may stumble across information that highlights some of the disparities the city faces across several social determinants such as economic stability and health. While these statistics may be staggering, it is important to remember that data does not paint the entire picture, and there are many people working to change the narrative.

Former educator and principal, Tyrone Cherry is addressing root causes through resiliency, environmental stewardship, and healing. He is the founder of The P.L.U.G. (Petersburg League of Urban Growers), where he is empowering Petersburg to practice a life of health, self-sufficiency, and sustainability. 

Cherry left the traditional classroom to focus on the development of the Petersburg Oasis CommUNITY Farm, a green space, complete with an outdoor classroom, dedicated to youth in Petersburg. The idea is rooted in social resistance and stems from students mobilizing to do something positive after the death of Mike Brown, who was killed at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. What started as building raised garden beds in his front yard in response to a lack of healthy food access, turned into Cherry purchasing a five-acre plot that is used today for urban agriculture, cooking, and centering mindfulness.

The father of four is also the project assistant at the Petersburg River Street Farmers Market, market assistant for the POP! Market, and market co-coordinator for the Power of Produce Club youth program. The POP! Market (Petersburg Offers Produce), a mobile market offering fresh and local food, presents Petersburg residents in areas with low access to healthy foods with the opportunity to purchase healthy produce and maximize their SNAP benefits through the Virginia Fresh Match program. Creating additional opportunities to utilize SNAP/EBT benefits and take advantage of the Virginia Fresh Match program, which matches SNAP dollars spent with the equivalent amount in fresh fruits and vegetables, is critical within the community.

When Cherry isn’t managing the market and farm, he is often working with local nonprofits and schools to provide lessons in environmental stewardship, and to fill the gap in healthy food access by providing snacks to programs and children. 

Follow Tyrone Cherry and his work through The P.L.U.G. on Instagram.

All photos courtesy of The P.L.U.G.