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‘Weaving the Food Web’ summit attendees see educational and agricultural operations up close

A busy but caring Louisville food pantry is also featured

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Immigrant farmers Rowla Maalin, second from right, and Habiba Mohamed, at right, were among those presenting as part of the tour portion of the “Weaving the Food Web” summit put on by Presbyterian Hunger Program and its partners. (Photo by Alex Simon)

LOUISVILLE — A bus tour that was part of the weekend’s “Weaving the Food Web: The People’s Summit on Food Systems and Urban Agriculture” conference put on by the Presbyterian Hunger Program and its partners included three stops that illustrated just how complex the food web can be in an urban setting.

Sister Visitor Center

Sister Visitor Center, part of Catholic Charities of Louisville, Inc., and an affiliate of Area Community Ministries, looks more like a small grocery store than a food pantry. It’s one of the few choice food pantries in Louisville, explained Sister Paris Slapikas, the center’s director, who led a tour even as neighbors were securing groceries and other goods for their families.

Sister Paris Slapikas, center, director of the Sister Visitor Center, speaks to people attending the food summit. (Photo by Alex Simon)

Volunteers serve as personal shoppers, helping clients find what they need. That practice started during the pandemic and has continued to the present. “We got to know the people we were serving,” Slapikas said, including “who doesn’t have a can opener or a microwave or a refrigerator. We decided not to move away from that relational experience.”

People who live in the ZIP codes served by Sister Visitor Center die, on average, 12.5 years sooner than those living in other Louisville locations. The food pantry works to provide healthy food alternatives on its shelves and in its produce bins, even creating samples and recipes clients can use to try new dishes at home. “You show people how to cook things and they’ll start to make them,” Slapikas said. “It’s now more about health and wellness.”

Obtaining food from the Sister Visitor Center is a bit like a trip to the corner grocery store. (Photo by Alex Simon)

The food pantry serves about 25,000 people annually, more than three times as many as pre-pandemic. Sister Visitor Center can assist only 27% of those seeking assistance with their utility bills. “We’re trying to scale that up,” Slapikas said, “but it’s a challenge.”

Asked about the sharp increase in the number of people seeking groceries from the food pantry, Slapikas suspects it’s due in part to inflation. About one-fourth of Sister Visitor Center’s clients are seniors on fixed income, while another 25% are families with young children. The rest are people 18-60, many of whom receive disability income, Slapikas noted.

Dare to Care Community Kitchen

The Dare to Care Community Kitchen houses the Dare to Care Food Bank’s production and innovation kitchen, a job training kitchen in partnership with Catholic Charities’ Common Table program. It includes a demonstration kitchen and classroom space. “We can take the abundance of farm-fresh produce harvested in Kentucky summers,” the kitchen’s website says, “and ensure it is chopped, prepared and flash frozen to be enjoyed when it is most needed by families.”

Makeda Woods is director and executive chef at the Dare to Care Community Kitchen. (Photo by Alex Simon)

Makeda Woods, the facility’s director and executive chef, said culinary students receive 200 training hours at the kitchen, a gleaming facility in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. Before it was converted into its current 24,000 square foot configuration, the site was a former grocery store that had been vacant for about 15 years, Woods said.

Up to a dozen students at a time learn about food safety, how to sauté, and the right way to scrub kitchen floors, Woods said. Selected farmers come to the community kitchen with their crops and talk to students about their farm enterprise. For many students, “their ultimate goal is ownership,” Woods said, while others eventually find their way into working in restaurants or hotels. Students are paired with business coaches and learn from frequent demonstrations put on by chefs.

“Food was always a big thing in our house,” Woods said of her earliest experiences around food preparation. “We always had a garden in the backyard, but I never thought of [food preparation] as a career. Then I entered a chef program and was mentored by a couple of chefs.” Woods attended culinary school evenings after work and worked in hotels and as catering manager at the University of Louisville before coming to the community kitchen.

Common Earth Gardens Incubator Farm

In partnership with the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension, the Incubator Farm Training Program supports farmers in Louisville to build successful, independent farm businesses.

“We saw the need people had for selling produce,” said Amir Hussein, farmers market coordinator for Common Earth Gardens, which, according to its website, “collaborates with the diverse and multicultural community of Kentucky to increase land access to grow food, develop new farm businesses and build healthy community networks.”

Hussein said that immigrant farmers who are Congolese, Somalian and Nepali are among those who are provided access to land at the farm incubator. “When they get here, it’s hard for them to find land, and so we provide land so they can start growing,” Hussein said. “These farmers have grown their whole lives, but growing in Kentucky is different … One year you get only sun, and the next year you get hail. It’s all over the place, and a lot of them aren’t used to that.”

A business consultant helps each farmer to track finances and set up goals. Amelia Baylon, Common Earth Gardens’ urban agriculture sustainability coordinator, said the presence of “a huge sewer pipe below us” means the land the incubator farm sits on will never be developed. “Using relationships to access land has been big for us,” Baylon said. “We have a lot of community gardens on church properties.”

The two introduced a pair of Somali immigrants, Rowla Maalin and Habiba Mohamed, to talk about their experiences growing corn, peppers, cherry tomatoes and other crops in incubator farm soil. Each Saturday during the summer, Maalin sells the produce she grows, including cherry tomatoes and corn, at a farmers’ market in Louisville.

“People aren’t used to buying from Somali farmers,” said Hussein, whose own father is one such farmer. “Getting ourselves out there is an issue” as is “getting people to understand there is more [to eat] than what you see in the produce section of your store.”

“We grow things we love to grow,” Hussein said.

“Farming isn’t very profitable,” Baylon said to a number of nodding heads. “It’s hard work, and sometimes you need a side hustle. We don’t see a lot of families being a farmer and that’s it. They’re sensing in America that’s just not viable.”

Food summit wrap-up

Summit-goers completed squares that will soon be quilted together. (Contributed photo)

To close the summit on Saturday, members of the Youth Community Agriculture Program danced their way into the conference facility at the Presbyterian Center holding what will be a quilt created from squares contributed by summit attendees.

Andrew Kang Bartlett, Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Associate for National Hunger Concerns, noted a Summit Declaration was then read to two city officials: Deputy Mayor Nicole George and Metro Council President Markus Winkler.

The 2023 Greater Louisville Food Justice Declaration says, in part:

  • “We are alarmed at the vast inequalities that persist between the west and east ends of our city. The fact that one in seven people in Kentuckiana are food insecure and one out of every five children has faced food insecurity during the last year are indicators of this dire situation.”
  • “We are dedicated to challenging and building alternatives to harmful systems that divide those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who are denied such access. We believe that food justice is racial justice and, while policy changes are urgently needed, we recognize the centrality of mutual aid for our survival and collective well-being.”
  • “Moving forward, we plan to define a common vision for food justice and healthy equity, and we issue the following call to action to advance our shared commitments”:
  • We “call on people to participate in shaping the Food Vision 2030 and Greater Louisville Food Council. … Critical to this is support for producers, workers, and food businesses — the backbone of our food system. The Food Vision and Food Council will guide the implementation of the community’s vision for a just and equitable food system.”
  • “We call on the sustained support of residents, groups, businesses, institutions, the Mayor’s Office and the Louisville Metro Council to realize this vision together … We know that our initiatives will be more impactful when the Louisville Metro Government recognizes that food is a basic human right and works with us to advance policies and programs to guarantee this right …”
  • “Working together, we — as residents, food producers, community groups, businesses, institutions and government — can solve Louisville’s food apartheid by addressing the underlying systems like systemic racism, which have led to stark inequalities in food access, health, education, housing and wealth that we experience in Louisville today.”

Read a Presbyterian News Service report on workshops held as part of the summit here.

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