Our eating habits are changing. Farmers markets, CSAs, community gardens, local foods, the 100-mile diet, organic production—none of these is a particularly new idea, but the sheer, collective proliferation of such ventures points to a radical shift in the way Americans view their food and its sources.

For organic urban-agriculture pioneer Michael Ableman, these changes are part of something much bigger. “As a society, we’re coming out of a period of amazing separation from the natural world,” he said in a recent interview on the blog Organic Connections. “Farms and food are a bridge that is bringing us back.”

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But while some of us eagerly reach for a more local, sustainably grown and healthy tomato, others are lucky to find a neighborhood convenience store selling corn-syrup-laden ketchup. Even as the nation wakes up to a healthier relationship with its dinner plate, entire communities struggle with a plate half empty—by little more than an accident of birth.

The concept of food justice—equal access to sustainable and nourishing foodstuffs—picks up where the foodie movement leaves off. And urban agriculture, in the form of small farms and community gardens, plays an increasingly important role in closing the gap between those who can afford quality victuals and those who can’t.

The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (UACC), while only two years old, has quickly established itself as a model organization in delivering on the promise of food justice. Dedicated to the idea that “working together to grow and share healthy food helps cultivate healthy communities,” UACC has pioneered several programs to improve the quality of food in Charlottesville.

At the heart of the organization are three gardens located in lower-income neighborhoods that annually produce some 10,000 pounds of food. Currently, the collective is adding an orchard of fruits and berries.

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The growing and distribution of the produce is accomplished through a unique model: “It’s not backed by gold. It’s backed by time,” explains operations director Todd Niemeier in a recent newspaper interview. Community members who volunteer in the garden earn tokens, which they can either redeem for vegetables at the weekly market or donate to others on a simple “pay it forward” basis.

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These volunteers (more than 150 of them last year) represent a broad swath of the city, including neighborhood residents, school children, and even non-violent offenders fulfilling community service requirements. “Our most important work happens behind the scenes,” says Niemeier, “when we help foster new, supportive relationships between neighbors, inspire neighborhood residents to think about food and their community in a different and positive way, and encourage a sense of collective responsibility for the well-being of our community as a whole.”

In other words, the organization’s most important work is, to paraphrase Ableman, creating a bridge that connects neighbors not only to each other and not just to the source of their food, but also to a more empowered, collective sense of agency in their own lives and in the lives of their neighbors.

Organic Valley is committed to building a just and sustainable food system and is proud to support the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville in its efforts.