Tilling North St. Louis, Planting for a Healthier Future

Man smiling surrounded by plants

ST. LOUIS — Straw hat in hand, Tyrean “Heru” Lewis jumped out of his pickup truck along busy Shackelford Road in north St. Louis County and walked into the tree line, where he had something special to show.

On the other side, uniform rows of vegetables — lettuce, radishes and bok choy — sprouted on half an acre. The land is not on a remote country farm but in Florissant. As Lewis, founder of Heru Urban Farming, checks the crop he gets excited about its progress, raising his voice over the sound of traffic.

He describes the need he has seen in St. Louis, his hometown, where many children don’t have enough healthy food to eat and the nearest fresh vegetable can be miles away.

He has also seen how gun violence has become a fact of life. As a health teacher, he saw one of his students go to prison for a shooting. As a resident, he often hears gunshots around his home. Three or four people are killed in his neighborhood every year.

“I mean, that’s normal to some people and, unfortunately, to me,” he said.

Researchers say a host of factors contribute to a city’s gun violence problem — deficits in social determinants of health such as income, housing, healthy living environments, and quality education. And food security.

“I’ve seen the difference in kids when they get a meal and when they don’t get a meal, how they behave and how they focus in school,” said the 38-year-old Lewis. “So I truly believe that’s all connected.”

Nearly 70% of the approximately 270 homicides in the city last year occurred in low-income census tracts without access to a grocery store or supermarket for at least half a mile, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of federal data and police reports.

St. Louis leads the state in gun violence and for most of the past decade ranked No. 1 for food insecurity, according to the Missouri Foundation for Health.

But it’s not just an urban problem. Southeastern counties in or near Missouri’s Bootheel have high levels of food insecurity, federal data show. And four of the 10 counties with the highest rates of gun deaths sit in the far southeastern corner of the state: Wayne, Reynolds, Pemiscot, and Carter.

Food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to healthy food — across an entire community can lead to higher rates of health problems, including mental health, according to researchers.

Scarcity of fresh and healthy food in communities is a critical public health issue, said Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the St. Louis Department of Health.

Photo by Sara Diggins

“It’s not just about interrupting acts of violence or preventing acts of violence, but it’s really about creating change in the trajectory of the lives of the individuals that are considered high-risk in those communities,” he said.

“Essential wraparound services — such as mental and behavioral health, utility assistance, mortgage and rental assistance and food — those are some of the things that a lot of people oftentimes take for granted and are really the key things that are necessary to change the environment for individuals.”

A few years ago, Lewis decided he could be part of the solution.

“A lightbulb went off in my head,” he said. “There’s a need here, a demand here, so why can’t I be the one that supplies it?”

Other urban farmers had the same idea.

Photo by Sara Diggins

A grassroots ecosystem of Black urban growers, farmers markets, entrepreneurs, and community leaders has sprung up in St. Louis to increase production and access to affordable fresh produce in their communities.

They’re tilling and planting vacant lots, backyards, and school gardens. Their fresh produce is going to community-owned businesses and families in need. And they’re finding ways to fund and train the next generation of farmers and entrepreneurs from within their neighborhoods.

Freshman state Rep. Kimberly Ann Collins, a Democrat whose district makes up the middle of north St. Louis, introduced a bill to aid the efforts of urban farmers in her district.

The bill created a tax incentive and financial support for growers converting vacant lots into gardens. Recent St. Louis Land Redevelopment Authority data show about 96% of vacant lots for rent or sale are found in eight wards spanning the northern half of the city.

Photo by Sara Diggins

For Collins, a resident of the Ville neighborhood, the issue hits close to home.

“I have the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, right here in the city of St. Louis, just because of where we live, because we don’t have access to fresh food,” Collins said.

“The convenience stores that are in our neighborhoods don’t have the apples and bananas; the convenience stores in our neighborhoods have all of the processed foods that you can get.”

The measure sailed unopposed through the Missouri House’s Agricultural Policy Committee, a Republican-dominated body.

The choice to support the bill was not difficult, said Rep. Don Rone, a Portageville Republican, and chairman of the committee.

“When you did the math on the size of the lots and everything, there were over 400 acres of vacant lots in the city of St. Louis — not counting in Kansas City, where they have vacant lots also,” he said. “So this would enable those people in those neighborhoods, to raise their own vegetables and have a source for fresh vegetables that they would normally not have. And it would absolutely improve the look of the city also — it’s basically a no-brainer.”

However, the measure died on the last day of the regular legislative session when Senate Republicans refused to return to the floor to vote on remaining bills.

“We will get it across the finish line if the other end of the building does their job next year,” Rone said.

But the growers at work in St. Louis aren’t waiting for the state to act.

Different food:

Farming wasn’t something Lewis planned to do.

For a decade, he taught physical education in St. Louis schools until the trajectory of his life changed when he learned firsthand about the inequality in food access.

In 2017, he went to his nearest grocery store — a mile from his home — to buy the ingredients for a vegan meal. He didn’t find what he wanted.

“I wasn’t really happy with what I saw; there wasn’t a good variety to pick from,” he said. The produce “actually looked kind of sickening.”

He traveled a little farther from his home to another location of the same grocery store chain. The quality and quantity of fresh produce was slightly better but not by much. So he drove even farther into the suburbs of west St. Louis County.

The farther from his home he went, the better the quality of food.

“It was a shock,” he said.

His solution? First, he planted a garden in his backyard. Then Lewis quit his job and became a farmer.

Photo by Sara Diggins

From expanding his garden to vacant lots across the street to leasing larger plots on Shackelford and elsewhere, Lewis expanded his operation to grow food full time.

Financing from grants has helped, Lewis said. Last year, he produced 200,000 pounds of produce.

He expanded his business by selling subscriptions to customers who, for $492, receive weekly deliveries from his farm during a three-month growing season.

About 20 customers have signed up so far, he said.

For every five subscriptions he sells, he donates one to a family in need. Everything he grows in his first garden by his home, he gives away to people in his community.

His neighborhood, Kingsway West, which extends north of Martin Luther King Drive and Union Boulevard, is considered food insecure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because there’s no supermarket within a half-mile. Instead, it is surrounded by corner stores and gas stations.

Many of the city’s food-insecure neighborhoods are north of Delmar Boulevard.

Delmar, long seen as a boundary that cuts the city north and south along racial and economic lines, is a key to understanding where food insecurity is concentrated, said Jessica Meyers, project director at the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission.

“North of that, we see areas that have had systematic disadvantages ...,” she said. “Policies that have kind of gutted these neighborhoods, including taking away access to healthy and nutritious food.”

What Lewis found in grocery stores in St. Louis also has been true in Kansas City, a Kansas City Star report in 2018 found. Many stores east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City lack healthy food, so residents often have to travel to more affluent areas in the western half of the city to find fresh produce.

Helping Black farmers:

Anyone driving through the Walnut Park East neighborhood in St. Louis might miss the clearing at the intersection with rows of purple cabbage, spinach, and beets hidden by tall grass. But that’s where you can find Tosha Phonix almost every day in the spring and summer growing season.

Phonix signed on as a food justice organizer with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 2018 and soon saw the impact she could have.

Last year, she left her job with the coalition to co-launch EVOLVE, where her primary role is to raise grant dollars to help Black farmers in Missouri get financing and equipment they need.

“I realized that, one, there was no food justice movement here in St. Louis. And then two, that Black farmers and growers weren’t getting the resources they needed to grow food for their communities,” she said. “So I kind of took on the fight for, you know, resources and getting resources to Black farmers and growers in North City and throughout the Missouri region.”

Photo by Sara Diggins

The concentration of food inequity in certain communities does not happen by accident, she said. Disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, as well as the difficulty Black farmers have had getting the capital to start farming, have exacerbated the situation in St. Louis, Phonix said.

The disparities in food access have been called “food apartheid,” a term coined by Black activists and farmers who reject the passive phrase “food desert” in describing the root causes that leave communities unable to obtain fresh, healthy food.

Walnut Park East in northwest St. Louis, where Phonix has her garden, is a low food-access census tract where a significant number of residents don’t have a supermarket nearby. The corner stores and markets in the community are stocked with packaged and processed foods, with the produce section often consisting of small bins, limited variety and aging produce.

The neighborhood also has struggled with high rates of gun violence.

In 2020, the area reported 10 homicides, according to St. Louis police data. Adjacent Walnut Park West tied another neighborhood in the city for the highest number of homicides last year at 15.

Gun violence in the neighborhoods has grown worse in recent years, residents say, and police data reflect their observations.

In 2015, Walnut Park East and Walnut Park West reported a combined seven homicides — meaning the neighborhoods have seen about a 257% increase in homicides over a five-year period.

Community bond:

Southeast from Phonix’s garden is the Hyde Park neighborhood, nestled against Interstate 70, where one of the only weekly farmers markets in north St. Louis launched in May.

What started as one urban farmer and a couple of vendors a month ago has grown to include multiple produce stands, artisans, a biweekly yoga class and stretching exercises on the lawn, said Fatimah Muhammad, founder and chair of the Hyde Park neighborhood association.

A retired businesswoman who moved from St. Louis County to north St. Louis to work in the community, Muhammad launched the weekly market as a way for local growers to make a profit while providing fresh produce to the community at affordable prices.

For Muhammad, the market also acts as a way to rebuild community bonds that have disintegrated over the years. Those bonds can deter crime and make the neighborhood safer.

Photo by Sara Diggins

On Saturday mornings, every week since April and until October, Fatimah Muhammad gets the music going, sets out chairs and tables and greets vendors as they arrive for the Hyde Park Farmers & Artisan Market at the corner of Salisbury and North 21st Streets.

Muhammad says she wants to invest back into the community, and the market is only part of her efforts. She plans to open a wellness cafe in the adjacent building, where people can go to work, eat and gather.

“I mean, if you go back to childhood ... if I did something five blocks away, by the time I got home, my mother knew because the neighbors knew who I was and who my parents were,” she said. “And so that communication is one of the biggest voids that we’re missing in urban communities.”

But the lack of access to affordable fresh, healthy food is not isolated to a couple of neighborhoods in the city.

Of all the census tracts in St. Louis, about half are considered food insecure, without access to a supermarket or grocery store for at least half a mile.

Photo by Sara Diggins

Since it started six years ago, the mobile Metro Market has become a staple in many St. Louis neighborhoods. Fully stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables and supplemented by items like Amish honey from Bowling Green in Pike County, the bus is effectively a small community grocer on wheels.

It stops in areas without access to a grocery store or supermarket for miles, said Quinton Ward, executive director.

Photo by Sara Diggins

“With the lack of access, you’re talking about this larger thing — you’re talking about systems that have not worked in a very long time,” Ward said. “What is the walking distance between yourself and a grocery store? But then, also, there’s the affordability aspect — you can have multiple grocery stores around you, but if you don’t have the resources to be able to buy those things, it doesn’t matter because you’re priced out.”

The nonprofit’s staff regularly go in person to hand-select fruits and vegetables from wholesale providers, making it possible to sell items at a reduced price. For example, a bunch of kale is sold for about 50 cents.

City, state help:

For urban farms to prosper and make an impact in St. Louis, they’ll need investment from city and state officials, advocates said.

The state Legislature passed several bills related to food insecurity in the past session, two of which were sponsored by Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis.

One of his bills extended an effort that allowed recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to use their benefits at participating farmers markets. Mackey said a pilot program was successful, with close to $1 million used over three years.

Photo by Sara Diggins

Another bill established a Food Security Task Force, a group with 22 members — academics, food advocates, representatives from faith-based institutions and food retailers — who will study the causes and impact of, and solutions for, food insecurity in the state.

Gov. Mike Parson has until Aug. 28 to sign or veto the legislation.

“We really want to connect the dots between our urban poverty and our rural poverty and try to figure out, you know, what other states are doing,” Mackey said. “The states that border us, even the red states, don’t suffer with this quite to the extent that we do.”

Missouri follows Arkansas as the most food-insecure state in the region, according to Feeding America’s 2019 data.

Tackling food insecurity can’t happen in a vacuum, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, whose district covers St. Louis and who has supported bills that deal with gun violence and food insecurity.

“In St. Louis, we don’t have the luxury of dividing our social problems into neat categories such as food insecurity, housing discrimination, gun violence, wage stagnation, incarceration or climate destruction,” she said. “Our communities are impacted by all of it, and all of the issues feed into one another.”

This story originally appeared in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was shared with Good Good Good through The Solutions Journalism Network.

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