Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting Millennials and Low-income Residents Activated and Engaged in Community Ownership

     Seven years ago, the Sweet Potato Project was founded with a mission to inspire young people to use food as an entry into entrepreneurism. I discovered early on that training kids to grow, harvest, package and sell food and food-based products is an admirable endeavor but the full possibilities won’t be recognized unless the practices were mainstreamed in their neighborhoods.

What does this mean? It means that community-wide environments must be created where vacant land is available to low-income, youth and adults; where systems are established that help ordinary people grow and bring fresh food to market. This must include providing low cost or no cost training that will help them professionally produce, package and distribute marketable, food-based products in and outside their neighborhoods. It also means a collective adoption of the idea that food, as an engine to economize, revitalize and stabilize their neighborhoods.
This may seem like a tall order but, believe it or not, it’s happening, albeit in a seemingly disjointed, unconnected and fragile way. 
Let me explain. A few years ago, a visionary by the name of Melvin White introduced a bold idea to revitalize MLK Blvd from Wellston to East St. Louis and across the country. Every year on Dr. King’s birthday, White’s plan received national recognition. It was a cause celeb for Washington University and Harvard graduate students. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why black aldermen along the MLK strip refused, for the most part, to get behind a plan that seemed to be marketing gold.
Melvin White founder of Beloved Streets of America

One of White’s most adamant opponents, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, endured public scrutiny for installing decorative lights along MLK Blvd. Strangely, reporter Elliot Davis on his FOX 2 News segment, “You Paid for It,” scrutinized the $1.2 million in tax dollars spent to install, as Davis put it, “fancy lights along abandoned, wrecked street.”

Elliot Davis interviews Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd about decorative lights on MLK Photo courtesy of FOX2 News

I don’t understand why Davis made a big ta-do out of the issue. These types of lights have been installed in several up and coming predominantly white neighborhoods, like the Cherokee and Grove strips. The decorative lights along MLK have brightened the area, adding a subtle layer of safety. I saw developmental potential highlighted, especially the phenomenal work of Friendly Temple Church and other mixed-income housing developments along MLK.

I didn’t hear much about Melvin White’s plan this year. My guess is that, like so many other black visionaries, he became frustrated with the backwards thinking, infighting and inaction among black politicos. If Boyd were big enough to adopt White’s vision, the lights would have been part of a bigger, more palatable economic development movement in North St. Louis.

Malik Ahmed, president and CEO of Better Family Life, was joined by community partners on May 1 to announced revitalization efforts in four St. Louis neighborhoods: Photo By Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
The project’s stated goal is to reduce the number of abandoned and vacant buildings and lots in North St. Louis and beautify neighborhoods with affordable houses. Malik Ahmed, BFL’s founder and chief executive, said he wants the project to attract “millennials and others in the area.”
This is a powerful move but could’ve had an even bigger impact if it was aligned with a collective, community-wide strategy to improve one segment of town at a time. How many millennials could we attract if we not only provided affordable housing but free land to grow food and subsidies to open storefronts along Page and/or MLK Blvd? What an innovative way to bring in young people who are truly vested in one designated area of revitalization.
I could get into the recent rifts between newly elected “progressive” white aldermen and a few elected black aldermen but that will be a topic for another commentary. I mention it here because, at some point, we must challenge these politicians to get past their beefs and enact the same sort of incentives in North St. Louis that’s been used to boost the Central Corridor, the Central West End, the Cortex District and other already wealthy white neighborhoods.
Here, I want to stay focused on the positives that can lead to real, healthy and lucrative development in long-ignored black neighborhoods. As I’ve stated many, many times, food can be that economic motivator that replaces lost industries in urban areas.
. Let’s be real, everybody eats. Growing, packaging and distributing fresh food and food-based products to consumers, public schools, grocery and convenience stores and public institutions can be a huge boom for low-income people. What dreams may come if everybody-consumers, restaurants, bakeries and more-all bought food that was professionally grown in North St. Louis? What would be the job and small business increase if a line of food, like Del Monte, was manufactured and distributed from the inner city?
The North City Food Hub partners include the Sweet Potato Project, Good Life Growing Inc., Hosco Foods, St. Louis University, Annie Malone Children & Family Services and City Market Cooperative.
I’m ecstatic to report that the Sweet Potato Project has joined a group of local food entities that have come together to turn these challenges into possibilities. The “North St. Louis Food Hub (NCFH)” is dedicated to creating “local food systems” specifically in North St. Louis. This summer, it will offer classes in land ownership, urban agriculture and culinary skills. Technical assistance will also be offered to help people develop business and marketing plans and become certified in “Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).” 
Good Life Growing, LLC is a member of the North City Food Hub
Photo by Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
NCFH will open its “shared-use kitchen” in the Greater Ville area in a couple weeks. This is where our students will turn their produce into products. It’s also where anyone can develop food products under the guidance of trained chefs (for a small hourly fee) and even earn “Food Safety” certificates. NCFH will also host classes to show people how, what and when to grow. It has partnered with or established places where urban farmers can sell their produce.
I’m a naively optimistic, big-picture kinda guy. Despite the seeming disconnect, division and political stagnation, something powerful is percolating in North St. Louis. The challenge is to pull these things together and present them in an empowering, collective narrative. Be it on MLK Blvd., or Page Ave., the Natural Bridge strip or somewhere near O’Fallon Park; black folk must choose and focus on one neighborhood. Then we can replicate the model in another neighborhood and another and so on and so forth. Because St. Louis has invested in white neighborhoods for the past 20 years, we already know that tax incentives and other government incentives can be used to improve black neighborhoods and spur small business growth.
The local food movement is spreading across the country. Those with the means and resources have been capitalizing off this for years. St. Charles developer, Paul Mckee, has already secured federal funds to grow, market and distribute fresh food near the looming NGA site. Many in the growing food market see African Americans as consumers and benefactors of fresh food. The NCFH plan, for example, seeks to empower them as entrepreneurs and landowners.  
The first step, however, is to get black people to buy into the possibilities of “doing for self” with a little government help. For me, with initiatives such as NCFH, I have a way to immediately put land in the hands of young entrepreneurs so they, too, can economically benefit from fresh produce. I see a viable pathway to get other millennials and low-income residents activated and engaged in land and community ownership. Growing and selling food and food-based products is a sound way to monetarily incentivize community development.
Let’s challenge our young and show them a workable way to put action behind their passions. Let us put aside our petty political differences and push an unique 21st Century agenda. Let us take a refreshing, collective approach to building affordable homes, land ownership, innovative entrepreneurism and neighborhood revitalization through the growing, packaging and distribution of food.  After all, everybody eats!


The North City Food Hub will hold its grand opening celebration on June 28th at 1034 North Sarah, St. Louis 63113. For more information call 314-258-2571 
or Alayna Sibert / Operations manager at 314-954-7090