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Presbyterian Hunger Program helps put on a summit focused on food systems and urban agriculture

Saturday’s workshops at the Presbyterian Center followed Friday’s farm and food tour

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Aaron Doucett via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Together with partners including Food in Neighborhoods and Kentucky State University, the Presbyterian Hunger Program helped to put on an illuminating two-day conference on Friday and Saturday, “Weaving the Food Web: The People’s Summit on Food Systems and Urban Agriculture.” After visits to growing, training and feeding operations on Friday, Saturday’s workshops were held in the conference facility at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville.

Following Saturday’s small group brainstorming on ways to improve their community’s food situation, the 170 or so registered participants selected workshops to attend. One, on “Abolishing Food Apartheid Forever: Mutual Aid and Other Models,” featured five panelists:

  • Juan Davis, a board member of New Roots, a grassroots food justice-focused nonprofit organization based in Louisville.
  • Taylor Ryan, executive director and founder of Change Today, Change Tomorrow, a Black woman-led nonprofit that works on food justice, community engagement and public health issues with people in the most marginalized neighborhoods in Louisville.
  • Vincent James, president and CEO of the Dare to Care Food Bank, which serves residents in 13 counties in Southern Indiana and Kentucky.
  • Michael George, who with his sister operates 5th Element Farms, which George called “a low-key grassroots urban operation” and is named for the founders’ love of hip-hop culture.
  • Steven Edwards, who operates Hope Garden of Louisville, which among other things provides classes in yoga, tai chi, and gardening.

“One focus for us is to scale efforts of equitable food access. I am a huge advocate of paying a living wage,” said James, who also pastors a church. “That would end a lot of challenges.”

“Imagine urban farms” utilizing abandoned properties on a scale in a city the size of Louisville, George said. “We can use traditional land and abandoned houses. There are all kinds of ways to grow food.”

When people hear terms like food deserts — a problem that plagues people living in West Louisville — they often “tie the lack of access [to fresh and nutritious food] to transportation issues, but that doesn’t address historical and systemic barriers,” Davis said. “There are plenty of food options — if you are willing to drive to them.”

James says he hopes to put himself out of business one day. But for the time being, Dare to Care Food Bank is constructing a $25 million 10,000-squre-foot warehouse with such growing capabilities as hydroponics. “Food banks need to be more innovative,” James said. “We have the opportunity only because we have the size and branding and trust of the community to do powerful things. It’ll take a mindset shift” to eliminate persistent problems like food deserts, James said.

One person in the audience who works at an elementary school asked the panelists, “How do we come to a place that’s not charity? My whole purpose is to connect kids to the land and the community. I don’t want it to be one-and-done charity work.”

5th Element holds events including Weeding Wednesdays. “Coming every six months doesn’t do it. Come weekly so we know you’ll be here,” George suggested. “We will listen to good music, but you’ll definitely be working.”

Pictured from left during Saturday’s summit are Steven Edwards, Michael George, Vincent James, Taylor Ryan and Juan Davis. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

“We need collaboration,” Ryan said. “I will always be that person saying here we are joined together, but we don’t work together. For us, that’s what we need: real, true partnership.”

“Each of us knows someone who can help somebody to fill out a grant request or get rid of aphids,” Edwards said. “Working more collaboratively to empower the next person is the biggest thing we can do to change … It took us a lifetime to get this way, but it shouldn’t take a lifetime to fix it.”

Youth Community Agriculture Program

An afternoon workshop featured eight of the nine youth working this summer with the Food Literacy Project’s Youth Community Agriculture Program. YCAP enables youth to farm, cook, break bread, communicate and activate change together. It’s a seven-week summer employment opportunity for Louisville youth ages 16-21. YCAP gives local youth experience with planting, cultivating, harvesting, cooking and marketing fresh vegetables over the course of the season. Because some of the youth who spoke Saturday are under 18, Presbyterian News Service is not naming them.

“I joined to get some money in my pocket,” a 16-year-old said. “After I joined, I started caring about people just that quick. I learn more here than I do in school, and I appreciate that.”

“Learning about gardening has given us purpose we can utilize later on in life,” another youth said. With enough backyard gardens, “we can provide enough food to one another so we don’t have to rely on a system that isn’t doing anything for us … Even if you put a bucket [of dirt] on the front porch, plant something in it. [Backyard gardening] gives people options other than just being stuck.”

“I use raised beds in the backyard, and I get wood wherever I can. The only thing I had to buy was seeds,” said one youth. “There are many ways around problems. We can be a resource to help people fulfill their dream of growing their own food.”

“Programs and jobs like these in our area are beneficial to Black mental health,” one said. “You’re learning to care for things others don’t put as a priority for you … I’ve learned how to cut vegetables and how to prepare food and care for the soil. It’s taught me patience. This opportunity has been very meaningful for our community.”

“All we’re given is athletic opportunities,” one male student said, “and not everybody is athletic.”

“The body is the temple, and God sits in the temple,” said one. “We have to feed ourselves with the very things Mother Nature and God provide us.”

Asked if they can see a future in agriculture, one male student reached for the microphone.

“I have dreams of owning my own land and growing my own food,” this student said. “I want to get away from the dollar bill. If we have everything we need, the dollar bill has no meaning. That’s freedom for me. It’s reclaiming my power and doing something that fills my spirit. Carpentry does that for me too, and I see a great future in it. It’s a wonderful thing to think about.”

Read a Presbyterian News Service report on summit tours to three food-related operations here.

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