Social connections in the urban soil

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July 4, 2011 - 7:00pm

Cruising down Market Street in downtown Saint Louis, you're going to zip right by it.

But, if you can't beat the light just before the I-55 overpass you'll see a patch of green, filled with farmers wearing neon green T-shirts busy tending to the grounds and filling wheel barrels with fresh mustard greens.

It's called City Seeds Urban Farm and the little emerald plot is a standout among burgeoning nationwide efforts to create local food systems that address social problems.

For Robert Reed, one of the farmers here, it's making all the difference. He comes to the 2 acre center twice a week as part of a therapeutic agriculture program aimed at helping people recover from things like drug addiction or depression.

"It gives me a sense of belonging, that I can actually do something," said Reed, who is homeless and jobless.

At its heart, City Seeds is a local food system built to tackle everything from addiction to unemployment to homelessness. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the program was created by Gateway Greening in 2006, a 27-year-old non-profit focused on community gardening in Saint Louis.

"The key word for me is transformation." said City Seeds program director Annie Mayrose as she sat cross-legged between curvy raised beds loaded with potato plants.

"Because, it's transformation not only of the land, but of the people and individuals involved, of our food system, of our green footprint, of the way we look at jobs training, of the way we give people with criminal records a second chance."

The dozens of farmers who work the farm comprise two groups.

One is receiving treatment at the Saint Patrick Center, a local Catholic charity that works with people who are struggling with issues such as chronic homelessness and addiction. The other group consists of military veterans who are participating in a jobs training program.

But the community connection doesn't end there.

City Seeds sells a portion of its produce at a discount to Food Outreach, a non-profit a few blocks away that feeds low-income people in St. Louis who are living with HIV/AIDS or fighting cancer.

"If we didn't have the relationship with Gateway Greening through their City Seeds program, it would truly be cost prohibitive for us to have the quality and freshness that we're now getting," said Greg Lukeman, who runs Food Outreach.

Head chef Nicholas Hatfield raves about the City Seeds product: "These are some of the best salad greens I've ever had."

Hatfield this year has been working with the City Seeds staff to grow specific crops needed to make nutritious meals throughout the growing season.

"There's no reason they can't have food like this. And it just takes a little bit of effort, small movements like City Seeds, Gateway Greening," he said.

City Seeds also sells to the general public at Tower Grove Farmers Market, with the proceeds going toward helping keep the operation going.

That's not cheap; the price tag is around $230,000 a year.

Most of the funding comes from donations and grants. And a mix of partnerships and revenue sources has made it a model of sorts for similar efforts.

"We get calls locally and nationally; we get a lot of visitors that are from other countries," said Mara Higdon, program director for Gateway Greening. "People are really just starting out. So, trying to not only inspire them, but support them in their ongoing efforts to get their projects off the ground is what we hope to offer them if they visit or call."

The farm also serves as a case study in how to group together an alphabet soup of government agencies around a single cause.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant got the project off the ground; the Missouri Department of Transportation donated the land; and its job training program is funded by the U.S. Department of labor.

But for the farmers, is this approach making a difference?

Well, numbers for the veterans' job program look pretty good.

Shawn Thomason runs that part of the project and says the placement rate is near 85 percent.

That's pretty good in contrast to other jobs programs he's worked for where the number hovered around 50 percent.

He can rattle off loads of success stories, but one sticks out.

"He was living under a pine tree next to highway 40, probably about a quarter mile away from the farm," Thomason said. "He got a job with Top Care working at Washington University, and he has his own apartment. And he's been housed and employed for, gosh, now almost two years."

It's tough to know for sure, though, if there's a link between harvesting local food and recovery from things like addiction or depression.

Nevertheless, Ann Rotermund's gut instinct says yes.

She's senior director of mental health at the St. Patrick Center, whose clients work the farm.

"We have long thought that there was a link with kind of early recovery from drugs and alcohol and mental health issues with putting something in the ground," she said.

Addicts with a long history of substance abuse often struggle with waiting for the slow change of recovery after years scouring for a quick fix.

At the farm, Rotermund said, they learn patience in way they wouldn't through traditional treatment alone.

"So, how do you know when it's growing?" Rotermund asked. "It pops out of the ground. How do you know when you're growing? I do something different; I have different attitude; I have a different thought; I make a different choice; I make a better choice."

According to a pilot study conducted by Washington University in Saint Louis, Rotermund seems to be onto something.

The study followed clients with HIV/AIDs and a history depression or drug abuse who worked at City Seeds for eight weeks. The results showed lowered levels of depression, and in some cases, reduced drug use.

But you have to go back to the farm for what folks point to as success.

Robert Reed stopped thinning a row of sprouts and leaned back on his heels.

He's homeless, was locked up for a while and doesn't think he'd be around if it wasn't for the farm.

"There is something out there for me," he said.

Reed paused for a moment.

"You know, it could be right around the corner. All I have to do is open the door, or maybe get somebody to help me open the door. Because, you know, it's real tough for me. I've been at the release center for 15 months, and, I've still got two-and-a-half years left to go on parole. But, I can make it," he said.

That's the bottom line for the social service agencies that plug into City Seeds Urban Farm.

They don't think partnerships built around local food can end unemployment, cure disease or stop addition cold turkey.

But for some people, they think it can make a difference.

NET News documentary "Home Fields: Digging into Local Food" premieres Friday, July 8th at 7pm and 10pm Central on NET Television's NET-1 and NET-HD.



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