Friday, September 30, 2016

The Sweet Potato Project and Facing My Limitations

That line from the 1973 Clint Eastwood film, Magnum Force, has new meaning for me. Begrudgingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that my skills are not enough to operate the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) effectively. I’ve given it my best but my best has not been enough to take it where I feel it’s supposed to be. Funding has decreased significantly; we barely made it through the 2016 summer program. All this has me thinking about my limitations.

I co-founded SPP with the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC) in 2012. I can honestly say it's the most rewarding yet challenging effort of my long career. We’ve come this far thanks to a few dedicated volunteers, board members, limited nonprofit and corporate funding and generous people who’ve donated or helped us raise money to keep chugging along. But I’m almost 60 (groan) and can no longer wear all the hats of fund-raiser, urban farmer, marketer, educator, driver, delivery man, etc., etc., like I did just a few years ago.

There is no doubt that SPP’s basic but powerful mission is worthwhile. We teach youth how to be entrepreneurs today, in their own neighborhoods. We give them a summer job where they plant sweet potatoes on vacant or community lots. Students (ages 16-to-21) learn horticulture, marketing, branding, business skills, sales, product development and more. After harvest, they turn their produce into products. Right now, they’re selling sweet potato cookies on commission. I am constantly inspired by the discipline, grit, tenacity and brilliance of the low-income youth we serve.


I’m a writer and I’m more than comfortable promoting and articulating SPP’s mission. I get all animated when speaking about the vision of blocks and blocks of low-income urban farmers who own vacant lots, youth and adults who grow, package and distribute produce and developing our very own line of food products. I try to paint an electric picture of a sustainable, food-based North St. Louis economic engine that supplies fresh food to schools, public institutions, restaurants, grocers and consumers locally and even nationally.

This crystal clear vision is my daily motivation. My real friends know that, if I truly believe in something, I’ll chomp down like a pit bull and refuse to let go until my vice-like grip is weakened by reality. After all, I stubbornly held on to my struggling but award-winning publication, Take Five Magazine, for 15 years even though it never made money. I did so because I believed in its mission to inform, enlighten and serve as a source of needed change in our community.

After five years, I’m in no way ready to give up on the Sweet Potato Project.  I am however, ready to reconcile that I have limitations and need to rectify the situation. There are people out there-some I know and many, many I don’t-who share my passion and possess the skills and qualifications we need. You know who you are. If you’ve been feeling me but have been hesitant to reach out, now is the time. I’ve got about six months to turn this puppy around.

If you’re willing to bring your talents to our table, what follows are the specific areas of development where your gifts will be put to good use:


I am the primary fund-raiser for our project. With the help of one of our board members, we do it but I don’t consider us really good at it. There’s an art to writing grants, getting corporate sponsorship, planning fundraisers and closing the deal. I need more than well-intentioned people; I need folks who’ve done it before; who have professional marketing and promotional skills, who confidently know how to navigate gatekeepers, reach decision-makers, raise awareness and the necessary funds to help a promising, grassroots nonprofit soar.


My eldest daughter calls me a “control freak.” I don’t try to be, it’s just that I’m not comfortable asking unpaid people to do too much. We need qualified and motivated volunteers but we also need people who are good with volunteers; who understand the vision and can delegate and follow up on assigned tasks.   


SPP has the opportunity to develop its own revenue source through making, selling and distributing products made from the food we grow. Through our partnership with St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, our students currently bake and sell delicious sweet potato cookies. We have consumers ready to buy and vendors (restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, etc.) who have expressed interest in carrying our cookies. I’ve been hesitant to commit until I’m sure we can deliver consistent quantities of professionally baked and packaged products. I’m hoping that a major food manufacturer will adopt this vision and/or skilled individuals will commit to teaching our budding entrepreneurs how to package, sell, meet consumer demand and distribute current and new products in a professional and timely manner.


Part of our overall mission is to develop a sustainable economic engine in North St. Louis. We not only want to train young entrepreneurs, we want to help stimulate nurturing environments where youth and adults can capitalize off the burgeoning locally-grown food movement. We received a small grant to create a collective of urban farmers who will grow food, make food products at SLU and bring their goods to market. We need political, civic and corporate support to assist us as we attempt to help low-income residents gain access to some of the 8,000 vacant lots in the city of St. Louis alone. I would also like to have professional marketers help us promote and gain support for this grand vision. The major goals are to develop massive, inner-city food growth, make Sweet Potato Farms a recognized brand (i.e. Glory Foods) that helps people earn money and consumers know that their purchases will empower disadvantaged individuals and neighborhoods in North St. Louis. We’re hoping a major food manufacturer or people with the needed expertise will adopt this vision and partner with us to make it a sustainable and replicable success.


So there you have it; our vision, our challenges and our needs. The mission is powerful but I and our small group of fervent supporters can only do so much. I will be touching base with certain talented individuals I know, those who have written expressing an interest in getting involved and those who respond to this missive.  For the next six months, we will meet, discuss, prepare, restructure and put things in motion before we start recruiting youth for planting in late May and the 2017 summer program.

There are good people in my life that have cautioned me not to write about the challenges involved with this endeavor. "People only want to hear the positive" or "someone with more resources may steal the idea," they say. I understand that but it’s not my way. I’m human and I do indeed have limitations. Basically, I’m a writer and most of the blessings in my life have come from publicly articulating what is and what needs to be. Besides, I write because I’m jazzed by the potential of our disregarded youth and the possibilities of creating a grassroots template for real sustainable change in low-income communities.

If you feel me, then join me. With your donations of money, time and expertise, all things I’ve laid out and more are extremely possible.


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