Food & DrinkFood Features

Mariah Henry Cultivates a Shift in Culinary Thinking at The Urban Haven

The horticultural urbanist

Mariah Henry crouches amongst plants on a farm at The Urban Haven at The Stead
Mariah Henry will lead The Urban Haven at The Stead, a new community-centered horticultural and culinary residency at The Stead at Farmington. (Photo courtesy of Mariah Henry)

The Stead at Farmington, an apartment complex in northeast Charlotte, on Feb. 22 announced a partnership with Mariah Henry to launch The Urban Haven at The Stead, a community garden with culinary programming for residents and neighbors.

The only community garden within 150 acres, The Urban Haven will include raised beds featuring an edible heirloom garden, culinary workshops, “food days,” “field days” and more.

Fueled by a void that has plagued a broken food system, Henry will offer residents of The Stead seasonal harvesting and onsite programming while nearby neighbors will also have access to the public events, which will utilize the seasonal food and Henry’s expertise.

A graduate of Florida A&M and Johnson & Wales universities, Henry has followed a path of building community and grafting the essences of food and agriculture into a career and lifestyle.

Classically trained as a chef, she has an immersive background in sustainability, international agriculture, community relations, farming systems, culinary arts, strategic planning and small business enterprises that provides communities with the unique skill set to thrive where they are planted.

During her time at Johnson & Wales, Henry did an internship with Hello, Sailor, the renowned restaurant run by Joe and Katy Kindred on Lake Norman, where she worked in food prep and as a line cook.

“I learned how to work with various parts of the vegetables that would otherwise be wasted,” she told Queen City Nerve of her time at Hello, Sailor. “When I worked in other restaurants it would be disheartening to see the lack of education or care with fresh produce. Understanding how food moves and matures is crucial in preparing food that honors the farmer and the chef.”

She went on to take a full-time role with Wild Hope Farm in Chester County, South Carolina, where she cultivated her passion for sustainable food practices while taking part in the Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ Sustainable Vegetable Production Apprenticeship program.

“I was fortunate to immerse myself in various aspects of farming and land stewardship,” Henry said of her time at Wild Hope. “One day I was flame weeding and the next arranging beautiful bouquets for their [community-supported agriculture program].”

Mariah Henry faces away from the camera, a shoulder full of crops at The Urban Have at The Stead
Mariah Henry harvesting crops at Wild Hope Farm in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Mariah Henry)

As she wrapped up her final season at Wild Hope, Henry began to explore options back in Charlotte. She knew she wanted to work on the land, taking part in some sort of urban farming project rather than in a restaurant.

A serendipitous series of meetings led to her landing the position at The Urban Haven. It was her friend Bernard Singleton, owner of Nebedaye Farms in Indian Trail, that put her in touch with Zack Wyatt at Carolina Farm Trust, who suggested her to a rep from RangeWater Real Estate who was looking to fill an artist-in-residence position at The Stead at Farmington.

But this was not your average artist residency; they needed a culinary artist who was as familiar with the culinary aspect of the art as the horticultural aspect.

Learn more: Nooze Hounds: Zack Wyatt and Michael Bowling with Carolina Farm Trust

Wyatt would later hire Henry as director of urban agriculture with Carolina Farm Trust, where she now works to re-educate, reform and lead communities into economic resiliency through food.

Through her residency at The Urban Haven, she will lead her new neighbors in cultivating a community garden while hosting workshops on growing and cooking food. One such event in early March centered the story of Edna Lewis, a renowned African-American chef, teacher and author who helped refine the American view of Southern cooking.

Implementing regenerative and climate-smart practices, Henry said she is developing a blueprint for equitable and profitable urban farm systems, training the next generation of agricultural leaders and curating a seamless pipeline of sustainable production to equitable consumption.

She added that she is on a personal mission to bridge gaps in the food system, ensuring consistent access to quality meals, local foods and identifying inequalities with BIPOC and minority farmers.

“We want this to be a catalyst for the community,” Henry stated in a press release announcing the launch of The Urban Haven at The Stead. “Our goal is to reveal the honor in agriculture’s rich history, restore broken communities and reclaim the connection of food back to our mind, body and soul. We will offer flowers, herbs and vegetables and provide interactive opportunities for residents and neighbors. There is no other community garden within this community and we look forward to offering the first of its kind to all who reside nearby.”

Speaking over the phone with Queen City Nerve later, Henry built on this point, adding that the Urban Haven residency gave her the perfect chance to pursue the type of culinary community building she’s wants to work toward.

Mariah Henry of The Urban Haven at The Stead
Mariah Henry (Photo courtesy of Mariah Henry)

“I knew that the restaurant industry wasn’t really my scene anymore, and I wanted to be closer to the people that I was going to be working with, and so this kind of fit the mission and the model,” she said. “And so with community being the fore-facing [priority], I am going to them and asking them what are the things that they would want to see? What are their desires or hopes as a food community, as what you would want to see in your system?

“And so really trying to build a framework of what this model could look like when communities have particular people with talents or skills that can broaden what they’re exposed to, instead of you just have a rental apartment unit and this is it.“

Mariah Henry of The Urban Haven at The Stead
Mariah Henry (Photo courtesy of Carolina Farm Trust)

She pointed out that, with such a large percentage of transplants living in the Charlotte area, many of whom are single and/or working remotely, there’s a yearning for connection among folks living in communities like The Stead.

“That’s been a huge gathering point is that we’re all looking for something,” she continued. “And I know food brings folks to the table, but beyond that, people are just really excited about actually cultivating things and growing things … So the opportunity was more special for me, so that I could come out in a way that I wanted to and hopefully be a model for what’s happening in the midst of still trying to make some changes in the food system.”

For Henry, the residency is a way to make an impact in someone’s life that can stay with them far beyond serving a dish from a menu and never engaging any further that.

“The engagement piece, I think, is the main thing,” she explained. “When you’re at farms or in restaurants, you’re always just providing a service to others, but I wanted to be a catalyst, and when I say that, it is to give them the skills so that they can take it on and maybe do something else with it or just drop a seed to get them to change a mindset and a lifestyle shift, more than anything.”

A shift to sustainability and the way we engage with our neighbors — change can be a beautiful thing.

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