Jen McMahon, CEO and co-founder of Century Harvest Farms Foundation, never thought she would end up in rural East Tennessee, but always knew she was meant to help people.
McMahon, from a rural Appalachian town in Ohio, studied anthropology, French and linguistics at the University of Akron. She always knew she wanted to “help create programming” to benefit the community, but from an international perspective.
Her original plan was to develop programming for the United Nations in French-speaking countries. However, as she lived outside of college, working in the service industry, volunteering at local homeless shelters and other nonprofits, she realized that her own country needed her more.
“I realized that my talents, my brain, my everything weren’t really being used behind a bar counter, behind a coffee counter,” McMahon said. “I wanted to really start utilizing my degree and getting to what I wanted to do with my life. So I signed up for AmeriCorps VISTA because there were so many new opportunities for me to go and help so many other nonprofits around the United States.”
McMahon applied to about 11 different programs and got accepted to a handful. She chose to work with the Compassion Coalition in Knoxville. Never having been to the South before, McMahon “took a leap of faith” and made the move.
She intended to work in Knoxville for a year and then move on to another city, another state that needed her. However, at the end of her one-year stint at Compassion Coalition, McMahon saw there was a lot more work to be done in East Tennessee.
“I fell in love with the people, and I knew that there were so many more opportunities for me here to help my community rather than go back to Ohio or to go to another city,” McMahon said. “So I then took a job with Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless where I worked with veterans experiencing chronic homelessness. … Kind of a common theme that I saw amongst our folks that we were working with, most of them were dealing with some sort of substance abuse, most of them did not have access to consistent mental health counseling, didn’t have access to food, healthy food, not even close to any sort of healthy food.”
Working with TVCH, McMahon met Chris Burger, owner of Century Harvest Farm, through the Campbell County Food Collaborative. Burger told McMahon that he “had all these vegetables that were going bad” and that he did not know what to do with them.
McMahon saw the opportunity to partner with someone who had “a ton of resources but didn’t know what to do with them,” she said. The pair got a grant from Trinity Health Foundation to start a program where five veterans from TVCH and some people from Susannah’s House in Knoxville came out to the farm and picked fresh fruits and vegetables. Participants took half of what they picked home, and the other half went to the farm.
McMahon started spending “more time at the farm than (she) was spending at (her) own job,” and eventually pitched the idea to start a nonprofit to Burger. After nearly two weeks, McMahon created the outline of what the Century Harvest Farms Foundation is now.
“Kind of just taking all my different experiences, working with folks of different backgrounds, working with people in the community, seeing how our communities are hurting directly,” McMahon said. “… I’ve seen it all. … Using all of my experience, it really helped me to be able to create Century Harvest Farms Foundation.”
McMahon’s drive to serve others started when she was young in her hometown.
“Jen has always had the desire to impact change,” Linda Patterson, From the Ground Up program manager and McMahon’s mother, said. “As an active young person in her home community, she was known to see a need and meet that need. Nothing was ever too big, too impossible or too impractical to change.”
When McMahon was 7 years old, she noticed some of her friends did not have access to healthy food or any food at all.
“I was worried about where their food was coming from because they would come to church and they would always be hungry,” McMahon said. “I would ask my mom, ‘Why are they so hungry?’ And she’d say, ‘Honey, some other parents have a hard time making money and it’s really hard to put food on the table so that’s why we have to help our friends.’
“… It’s never been about us having more,” she added. “My parents never raised me to look down upon folks that didn’t have the same things, but recognize why they didn’t have the same food and things … and really being able to address that.”
With that in mind, a young McMahon started a Thanksgiving basket drive at her church to help feed the kids in her community. The drive still happens to this day.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to be a lawyer, pastor or missionary, but I knew that was always the line of work that I wanted to be in because I recognized from a very early age that there was an inequality, and that there were folks going without that shouldn’t be going without,” McMahon said. “So that’s kind of always driven me to do the things I am doing now.”