Thursday, May 11, 2017

Food-Based Economic Empowerment: It’s Happening in North St. Louis

It’s a humbling when a vision finally takes wings. Since 2012, the Sweet Potato Project has sought to educate youth in urban agriculture as a pathway to entrepreneurism. In brief, we show them how to plant food on vacant lots and how to market, brand and distribute food and food-based products. One of our concerns is that we can only impact our students during the summer months that they’re paid to work. After that many of our youth return to lives of social and economic chaos. To engage and inspire these urban pioneers year-round, we have to expand our mission into their environments to a point where growing, packaging and distributing fresh food is a 24/7, all-inclusive endeavor.

Well, six years later, I’m happy to report that the partners and elements are in place to create a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis. Several grassroots nonprofits, including the Sweet Potato Project, have collaborated to make sure growing food and bringing it to market is easier and do-able, particularly for low-income youth and adults. The North City Food Hub 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 anyone can develop food-based products under the supervision of professional chefs. Additional plans call for a cafĂ©, fresh food market, home delivery food service, a culinary certification program, and sessions designed to help residents lease or own some of the vast vacant properties in the city.


The Sweet Potato Project’s role in this collaborative is to bring as many youth and adults into the fold as possible. My challenge is to convince ordinary people who’ve been locked out of development in North St. Louis that we can reverse that trend. We have to convince those committed to equity that the food movement is real, economic game-changer in our neighborhoods, too. We have paint a powerful picture of massive inner-city farming where land-owners grow the food and earn money from their yields of sweet potatoes and other produce. That picture should include farmer’s markets in the hood with spin-off businesses like bakeries, restaurants and bars that draw people in and generate millions like the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. The vision must include a brand of food like Del Monte or Glory Foods that offers packaged and canned foods from land-owners in North St. Louis. These products must be of such quality that public schools, hotels, restaurants, public institutions, and a broad array of consumers are thrilled to buy knowing that they are supporting a movement of empowerment in North St. Louis.

Collaborations have been the key to current momentum.  To be truly successful, we must get politicians, city leaders and influential individuals to adopt this vision. We must encourage them to invest the same energy, creativity, and resources into this community endeavor as they’ve gifted to wealthy developers and tony neighborhoods for decades. Industrialization in St. Louis and across the nation has been on the decline for the past 50 years. But, because everybody eats and more and more people are turning to locally-grown food, there is a real opportunity to change the course of decline in North St. Louis and beyond.

Shared-Use Kitchen
Metro Food Bus

The thing I love most about the Sweet Potato Project is that it invites everyone and anyone to play a role in educating our youth and developing North St. Louis. You can help build community gardens, plant sweet potatoes, mentor young people, support the “brand” and, of course, buy food and food products lavishly and consistently.

We invite anyone and everyone to join us. Bring us your passions, skills, and talents to help us ensure that low-income youth and adults have a chance at economic empowerment, too. Fresh food can be a fresh start for long-neglected neighborhoods in our region and beyond.  Please help us take full advantage of this magic moment. Be a part of expanding and creating a food-based economic movement in North St. Louis.

-          Sylvester Brown, Jr. / Executive Director of the Sweet Potato Project