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Spreading Good Nutrition With Specialty Produce

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Founder and executive director Woody Woodroof gathers sweet potato greens at Red Wiggler Farm.
Jessica Gould
Founder and executive director Woody Woodroof gathers sweet potato greens at Red Wiggler Farm.

At Red Wiggler Community Farm in Clarksburg, Md.,  growers are harvesting a bounty of autumn vegetables. But farm founder Woody Woodroof says the growers -- many of whom have developmental disabilities -- are also cultivating other things, such as improved nutrition, and job skills.

"We grow and sell vegetables as a framework for training adults with developmental disabilities. And beyond that, 28 percent of the food that we grow goes to low-income households, people living in group homes," he says.

Woodroof started the farm 15 years ago after seeing the condition of the cupboards at many group homes. "It was a lot of boxed foods or canned foods," he says. Over the years, Woodroof has worked hard to increase access to fresh produce, but he's seen firsthand that getting anyone to replace french fries with fresh fruit is a whole other challenge. So he's appealing to the appetites of the people who work in group homes.

"What we found in one agency, 90 percent of the people that work in those group homes are from a West African country," he says. "What they said is, 'We want more food that we get back in our country.'" Specifically, he says, they wanted sweet potato leaves. 

"It’s hard to find them, and when you go to a regular store to get them it's very expensive," says Samuel Jones, assistant program director at Mongtomery County's Community Support Services. He says the pointy green leaves were a staple when he was growing up in Sierra Leone. 

"I said, 'As soon as you get it, I want to be one of the first people that you’re going to give it to.' It's one of our favorite best food. We love it so much," he says.

Now, Woodroof says he hopes that level of enthusiasm will catch on among residents. 

"If we’re bringing into group homes something like sweet potato greens that gets the people that work there really excited, we can go from sweet potato greens to kale, collards, beet greens and all these things are healthy and nutritious," he says. 

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