Thursday, April 27, 2017

When Clichés Come True: Sweet Potato Project 2017

Clichés like “It is always darkest before the dawn,” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” can be inspirational but frustrating. When you’re in the eye of the storm, you’re not exactly craving uplifting words. You’re looking for immediate relief.

 This speaks to my feelings about the past few years of my program, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). For those not aware, we recruit “at-risk” teens (ages 16 to 21). We provide them a summer job where they plant produce on vacant or community lots. They learn horticulture, marketing, branding, product development and much more. At the end of the summer, they’re charged with turning their yield into marketable food products. To date, the kids make and sell sweet potato cookies. We teach young, urban youth how to become entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods…today, not after they graduate college.



There was steady momentum since we started in 2012, but by 2015, we had a reversal of fortune. Funding from our traditional sources dried up. We had to cut back on the number of students we served, the program started to accumulate debt. If not for a small number of dedicated supporters and donors we would have folded last year. So this year, with no obvious hope in sight, I prepared for the inevitable; the Sweet Potato Project would have to cease operations.

If not for a small number of dedicated supporters and donors we would have folded last year. 

But then, about a month or so ago, the meaning of the clichés became relevant. I had the opportunity to sit with businessman and philanthropist, David Steward. Steward, the founder of World Wide Technology (WWT), a global technology solution provider, was one of our biggest supporters since its inception. However, we lost touch with WWT a couple years ago. The clouds lifted after Steward called recently to ask what he could do. This year, WWT and the Steward Family Foundation has more than doubled its annual gift. Of course, we need more than three times as much to operate the program effectively but today we have a much stronger start than we've had in the past three years.



We have a lot to do and very little time to do it. Last year I wrote a commentary about facing my limitations and the need to bring in more talented, committed individuals to help me take SPP to where it needs to be. Some of you responded but we were still in a state of flux. I’m re-issuing that clarion call today with the hopes that a solid group of us can make sure we can rise to the challenges of recruiting youth, planting sweet potatoes, and developing the class schedule and year-round marketing and fund-raising plans in the next 30 days.

The good news is that the urban agricultural movement is finally gaining traction in the city. During the campaign, our new mayor, Lyda Krewson, has heard from grassroots, community organizations who’ve been busting their butts to make great, progressive change in St. Louis. Mayor Krewson has voiced support for SPP. Hopefully, she will chart a new course where organizations like ours get a share of the love and resources former Mayor Slay lavished on the rich and powerful.

Hopefully, Mayor Krewson will chart a new course where organizations like ours get a share of the love and resources Slay lavished on the rich and powerful.

Additionally, a North City Food Hub will be birthed in the Greater Ville area. SPP is part of this collaborative that includes former staffers of St. Louis University’s Nutrition and Dietetics department, the Greater Ville Collaborative, Good Life Growing, Annie Malone Children’s Home and HOSCO Food.  This summer, there will be a shared-use, commercial kitchen where people can develop food-based products under the supervision of professional chefs. The plans also include a café, fresh food market, home delivery service, a culinary certification program, and sessions designed to help residents lease or own some of the vast vacant properties in the city. Through this initiative, low-income residents can grow and bring fresh food and “value-added products” to market.

For us, this translates into SPP youth having year-round opportunities to learn entrepreneurial skills and put them into practice. They will participate in a stronger food-based environment in their own neighborhoods. It means there will be a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis that reinforces land-ownership and build community pride. It will provide an exciting way for restaurants, schools, grocers, consumers, and the entire region to buy fresh, locally-grown food and products made in North St. Louis.



I am so grateful that the Sweet Potato Project still has the chance to play a part in bringing economic opportunity to long-ignored parts of our region. I am thankful that I’ll have another shot at nurturing, teaching and learning from young, brilliant but challenged youth in our city. To those who’ve stood with us or have expressed a desire to help in a variety of ways, expect to hear from me. In the next few weeks I’ll host meetings to outline volunteer opportunities and specific tasks we must undertake, quickly.  


I am so grateful that the Sweet Potato Project still has the chance to play a part in bringing economic opportunity to long-ignored parts of our region.



Today, in retrospect, I appreciate the meaning of those inspirational clichés. The clouds have parted but I know there are more storms on the horizon. No one promised this work would be easy. However, I am emboldened by the fact that good people, no matter how few, have always supported our good work. 

Thankfully, we begin another year. To the “good people” in our world, we have another shot. And, with your  help and support, we can continue the “good work.”




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