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Sunday Conversation with Sarah Koch

Fundraiser to shed light on how American eating habits affect hunger in Africa

There’s a quote that Sarah Koch likes. “Local is as far as the heart can travel.” Koch’s nonprofit, Development in Gardening is based in Atlanta. The heart of its work is in Africa, where the organization teaches farmers and communities about sustainable gardening. “The way in which we garden can affect a lot of different things, from nutrition to food security to income to climate resilience to community development,” says Koch, DIG’s co-founder and executive director. On Nov. 12, DIG will host a fundraiser featuring Atlanta chefs. The goal not only is to raise money but also to educate people on how American eating habits, namely our wastefulness, are exacerbating hunger a world away in Africa.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for DIG?

A: Eleven years ago, not long after college, I was a rural health volunteer with the Peace Corps in Senegal, in West Africa. I met another volunteer, Steve Bolinger, who was working in the capital, Dakar. His project was an urban garden at a hospital that had been able to provide HIV patients only oily rice. We know what we eat and how we eat plays a big role in our well-being and length of life. Steve’s garden introduced healthy, rich produce into meals and completely transformed that hospital. Steve and I co-founded DIG to expand his work, not just for people living with HIV, but for people throughout Africa and the world, really.

Q: How does DIG work?

A: We work at the grassroots. We are constantly designing new ways of gardening with the communities that are ultimately going to take on these projects long term. The design changes a lot depending on where we are working. We might work with a hospital or a school or an orphanage. Different communities have different landscapes and cultural diets that all have to be taken into context.

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Q: How do you get connected to these communities?

A: They invite us in and we play a unique part in the larger holistic effort of that institution or group. We create a demonstration garden where farmers come and learn skills. Once people have an opportunity to try those new techniques and see how they are working, they can implement them in their home gardens.

Q: Are you a gardener?

A: I am learning. I did not come from a background in agriculture, which is partly why you don’t see me working in Africa myself. All of our teachers and facilitators come from the communities we serve. I do come from a deep appreciation of food as it relates to our health. But yes, I am a learning gardener.

Q: Where does DIG go from here?

A: We have worked in nine countries in Africa and currently are working in Kenya and Uganda. Scale is a hard thing for us. Our success is rooted in this idea of empathy and deep listening and responsiveness to the communities we serve. What I see for DIG is to help others see that model and learn from it. And what we are doing, from soil assessment to organic pesticides, has applications even here in Atlanta.

Q: How do our eating habits here affect communities in Africa?

A: In the United States, 30-to-40 percent of our food supply goes to waste, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month. When we throw food away because we overbuy or over prepare, this increases pressure on natural resources, and wherever natural resources become scarcer, food becomes more expensive. This makes it harder for people in developing nations to meet their nutritional needs. Our event with the eight local chefs is attempting to make this connection between what is going on locally and globally. We all can advocate and be actors in bringing about food justice.

The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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