Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Sweet Potato Project 2016: Facing the Challenges, Working the Opportunities

“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

That quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, perfectly describes how I feel about the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). We're in trouble this year. The summer program officially starts in a week or so. We have kids ready to plant and about 15 possible sites in the city, county and East St. Louis, owned by residents, community groups and churches all ready for planting. We have a buyer, St. Louis University, committed to purchasing our collective harvest. What we don’t have is enough money to pay student’s salaries throughout the summer or help partner gardeners purchase organic dirt or build raised beds.

And therein lies the riddle. Whenever I talk about the program in private conversations or in front of an audience, people immediately start nodding their heads or complimenting our mission. I suppose it's because most Americans like the idea of poor people becoming self-sufficient instead of relying on “the system.”

Our mission is to capitalize off the “locally-grown” food movement that's booming across the country. Since 2012, we've attempted to foster a generation of young, urban entrepreneurs. We're also trying to help low-income adults take ownership and generate income in their own neighborhoods. We have restaurants, businesses and consumers interested in buying produce and products grown and made from low income ares in the region. 

It takes only a couple sentences to get those affirmative gestures: “Our students plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots,” I say. “We provide summer jobs where they learn horticulture, marketing, food production, sales, distribution and more. At summer’s end, the students are charged with turning their harvest into products that they can sell throughout the year to earn commissions.”


That’s it. That’s the gist of the program and the elevator pitch that everyone seems to like. Yet, funding the program is not getting easier, it’s actually getting harder. Rejection letters from potential institutional funders are always complimentary…”Your project is worthwhile but at this time…” etc., etc., but they're still rejections.

All is not completely lost. We still have a few grants in the pipeline that we hope come through. I've made some progress with a couple local aldermen who seem to see the value of growing produce on vacant lots. The mayor of East St. Louis along with other city officials there are absolutely thrilled to have the city participate in our growing collaborative. We have Karen Davis, horticulturist with Lincoln University’s Urban Impact Center helping us prepare lots for planting harvests that we'll purchase in the fall. Additionally, we’ve been awarded a grant to establish an official collaborative of food-growers but those funds won’t come in time for the sweet potato planting season which has to be done by mid-June.

A few of the vacant lots SPP will partner with this year:

Cote Brilliante Church lot
East St. Louis lot 
North County lot
Union Avenue Christian Church lot
Still, it’s obvious we have to take a different approach to get through the summer and beyond. Once again, we have to turn to our small circle of supporters and ask that they donate whatever they We’re also reaching out to the private sector, if you work for or own a small-to-medium size business and would like to support us, please let me know how I can get our "Ask" letter to you. Lastly, I'll officially launch our GoFundme campaign designed to raise money for student's salaries and summer operational costs in a couple days.

The students, especially my veteran students, are going to have to put some of those entrepreneurial skills they’ve learned to work. We’re planning a couple of fund-raisers where my kids will help me tell our story and gain more support. The Royale has one scheduled for June 21st. We're hoping more businesses and individuals will follow its lead. Please take note of our website and Facebook “events” pages to support these events.

On another note, SPP has to find different ways to raise money outside the traditional nonprofit support arena. With the help of St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, we have a quality product; sweet potato cookies. We already have a great baking team of experienced students. What we need is a food company or people with sales, food packaging and distribution expertise to help our students professionalize and expedite product sales, which could include more sweet potato-based products.

Call me a naive optimist but I maintain this project will someday live up to its potential. So many good people have given their time, skills and money to get us this far.  I simply have to trust that they and others, who say they like what we do, will come to our rescue. Politicians, churches and community groups are responding to our call to work together to turn vacant lots into productive, money-generating properties. In short, we're still in the game, still doing our best.

Despite the financial struggles, I find myself in a blessed position. After 30 years of writing about the historic economic and social woes of black folk, I'm in a place where I feel I'm actually helping to enact holistic change. I work with resilient, brilliant young people who inspire me and give me hope. That’s an invaluable gift. St. Louis is way behind cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City in the urban agriculture movement. Still, there's a healthy consortium of grassroots, food-related organizations here. SPP's endeavors to train youth, create a major food brand and empower low-income adults and neighborhoods can compliment these efforts.

It's going to be a rough summer. Although, after five years, I feel we should be financially stronger, no promises were ever made. Yes, I'm frustrated with the money shortage this year but that just means my students, volunteer staff and I have have to hustle harder with what we have at hand.

Someday, we'll solve this riddle, this mystery, this enigma. Someday, we'll turn more of those affirmative gestures into affirmative resources. Today, however, we have to rely on faith and the fact that we're on the right path. We have to move forward with the belief that enough like-minded, benevolent people will help us get through the summer and into that promising place of unlimited potential.