Love in a jar, jobs in the community
On Saturday mornings, you will find at least two of them at the Charlottesville City Market. The four women of the Vinegar Hill Project Women’s Canning Cooperative have dedicated themselves to canning local food and teaching others the craft.
As they grow their new business, they hope the love they put into each jar (it’s listed on the ingredients) will lead to job opportunities for other local residents and an appreciation for the businesses lost when Vinegar Hill was razed in the name of 1960s urban renewal.
Albemarle resident Viola Friday moved to the community in 1970. She retired from a position in the pediatric billing office at the University of Virginia Medical Center in 2009. It was the canning cooperative that brought her back to work.
“It’s pretty exciting and I am learning a lot about canning,” Friday said. “My mother canned … but then she stopped while I was young and I didn’t really get into it.”
After each City Market, other vendors donate leftover food suitable for canning. On one recent Saturday, the co-op was selling apple sauce and peach preserves from the previous week’s market leftovers.
Growing up in Louisa, Friday said her family would visit Vinegar Hill in downtown Charlottesville each week.
“Vinegar Hill was an African-American community, and there were 29 businesses on Vinegar Hill,” Friday said. “We are African-Americans, and I just think it’s a good idea to use that name to bring back the Vinegar Hill business [tradition].”
Mary Burton grew up in Orange and has lived in Charlottesville with her husband, once a Vinegar Hill resident, for the past 50 years. She’s a retired nurse who still works a couple of days a week as a respiratory therapist.
“It’s our hope that we can bring something back in the community from the African-American area that can get that connection back again,” Burton said. “My dream and vision is that this will take off and will grow to the point that we can take this project to other counties.”
The other founding members of the co-op are Denise Arnold and Irene Scott. Throughout the summer, the women are also offering canning classes for the community, and they say they are attracting a lot of students.
“A lot of the younger folks are having backyard gardens, and if they have five tomato plants, then they are going to have more tomatoes than they are going to use,” Burton said. “They need to know how to preserve those tomatoes for later use.”
Burton described the joy of waiting for the tops on fresh jars of peach preserves to pop after being closed.
“The lids — once you hear the ping as it gets sucked down, it’s sealed,” Burton said. “If it’s up, it’s not sealed. It’s a process and you can’t rush it, you have to be patient.”
Burton said gardening and canning are coming back as “the way of life that it should be.”
“I love the taste of the food that we open up in the winter time,” Burton said. “If you go out and pick some fresh greens in the fall and cook them, and then you have some chow-chow pickles or pickled peaches to go with it, that made your meal.”
Charlottesville resident Joanie Freeman has been helping to facilitate the women’s work as a business mentor.
“Joanie is very energetic, kind and a go-getter,” Burton said. “She gets involved in anything and everything that has a purpose behind it and when there’s something we don’t know, she can find it. She’s a good resource person.”
Freeman moved to the community in 2010 and is a retired special-education teacher from Miami. She is involved with the local Sierra Club and Transition Charlottesville-Albemarle and sees building community, having healthy affordable food and shrinking carbon footprints as major goals of her personal life and volunteer work.
“Coming here as a white middle-class person, you feel like you have entered Shangri-La,” Freeman said, describing Charlottesville’s small-town, university-infused appeal. “You start scratching the surface, and 20 percent of the population is considered in poverty … and you’ve got some major problems going on in the community.”
Freeman sought to get a better understanding of her newly adopted home. She started asking how the unemployed, the working poor and the disenfranchised might see themselves differently and how the community could value their talents and contributions.
“In my travels, I got introduced to the cooperative business model out in Oakland [, Calif.],” Freeman said. “I watched how they were able to engage a lot of disenfranchised people into a business, a bakery.”
After taking a food canning class, Freeman had the idea to merge it with the cooperative business model. She then set about finding kitchen space and recruiting participants.
“They are selling the Vinegar Hill Project,” Freeman said. “The women decided it shouldn’t just be a canning cooperative. This should be the beginning of creating opportunities and small-scale businesses for the [broader] community.”
Burton and Friday both described how they have a dream to expand their work beyond their current foursome, teach others and take on new challenges.
“I can see us in our own place working, and maybe even doing something else besides canning,” Friday said. “Building other opportunities and bringing in people for jobs, that’s what I see. I am looking even more forward to the future.”