Columbia Group Plants Seeds Of Health, Hope With Urban Ag Efforts

Hay is baled and ready for the growing season this spring. Plants were put into the ground outside in mid-March. | Courtesy of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
Before the start of the spring, hay was baled and ready for the growing season. Plants were put into the ground outside in mid-March. | Steven Benna/Missouri Business Alert

Deanna Anderson hoped her garden would bring back the hummingbirds again this year.

She says the strong-scented herbs in her front yard in north Columbia attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Early in the growing season, they hadn’t returned yet. But the herbs were in, so she waited.

Anderson was the recipient of the first Opportunity Garden from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA). The Opportunity Garden program, which is the center’s primary focus, matches the center’s experts with low-income families to help build and sustain gardens.

For residents like Anderson, gardening has meant more nutritious meals, lower grocery bills and a beautified yard.

For founders and staff at the center, gardening offers all that and more. For them, it serves as a method to achieve greater purpose.

By offering a variety of services to local families, the Columbia-based nonprofit aims to provide food to low-income families as a way to improve overall health outcomes, nurture more interactive neighborhoods and use the effects of gardening to better the environment.

“Gardening and eating good food and cooking and spending time with your family and outside – on the surface it’s gardening, but that’s not the end of what we’re trying to do,” said Billy Polansky, general manager of the center.

In 2013, about 17 percent of Boone County residents were food insecure, meaning they have limited access to healthy and affordable food, according to a study by The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. According to a study by the center, that is nearly three times the statewide level of 6 percent, Polansky said. The center, now in its fifth year, wants to change that.

Building on a shared love of food

The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture was founded in 2009 by a group of University of Missouri graduates — Adam Saunders, Daniel Soetaert and Bobby Johnson. Soetaert and Johnson have since moved on: Soetaert, a political science major, is now executive director for the Springfield Urban Agriculture Coalition but remains on the Columbia center’s board; Johnson, a soil science major, left to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of California-Davis. Saunders remains, and has made the center’s work his passion.

Billy Polansky, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture | Courtesy of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
Billy Polansky | Courtesy of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

The project began with minimal resources: No employees beyond the three founders and just $4,000 of pooled investment. But it was big on vision: Improving the local food system from the ground up, one garden at a time.

Five years later, the center’s budget has risen to $250,000, much of it from grants and some from revenue earned through the center’s Edible Landscaping and Planting for the Pantry programs.

In 2010 and 2011, the program received just over $9,000 each year in grants. In 2012, grant funding increased to nearly $112,000. By late 2012, the Heart of Missouri United Way joined the funding efforts, providing $75,000 in support.

“The Opportunity Gardens are really cool because they engage young people to learn about gardening and producing food,” said Tim Rich, executive director of the local United Way. “They can also learn about edible agriculture and landscaping.”

The center has based its promotion of healthy lifestyles around a shared love for food.

“Food is a middle ground where everybody comes together and is interested,” Saunders said. “I mean, food is good, right?”

Planting at the urban farm begins in February, when vegetables were planted in the center’s greenhouse, located just to the right of the field area. In March, some plants, such as garlic and onions, were planted outside on the one-and-a-half acre urban farm. The center also has a greenhouse, a shed for equipment and a chicken coup.

Opportunity Gardens and more

Since the mentoring program started in late 2011, about 80 households have received Opportunity Gardens, Saunders said, and 12 additional households signed up this year.

The program is partially inspired by a program in Olympia, Washington, called GRuB. GRuB also uses one-on-one mentoring and builds gardens in people’s yards. Saunders said GRuB is two years older than Opportunity Gardens, but both projects have faced similar cash-flow challenges as they tried to establish a sustainable base. The primary difficulty for the Columbia center is providing enough benefit to employees, Polansky said.

“We realize that salaries and incentives for employees are very low and that for the sustainability of the organization, they have to be higher,” Polanksy said. “This will help attract talent and help our employees be financially stable.”

Once the center’s workers help get a garden installed, they provide follow-up mentoring for three years. There is a minimum of one follow-up each growing season, but that number often climbs to four or higher.

Beyond that, the hope is that the new urban gardeners will keep things growing year after year on their own.

“Our goal is ultimately for them to be self-sufficient,” Saunders said. “We tell them we will come back less and less as time goes on. We won’t garden for anybody. It’s more of us teaching rather than doing it for them.”

The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, located at 1207 Smith St., Columbia, Mo 65201, is a nonprofit that aims to use urban farming to help lower food insecurity in Boone County. | Steven Benna/Missouri Business Alert
Five years since its founding, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has an operating budget of $250,000. | Steven Benna/Missouri Business Alert

Anderson started small with two raised-bed gardens. She has since expanded; her front yard is decorated with herbs and flowers from spring into fall. Along the side of her house, she grows strawberries, carrots and radishes, which are outlined with flowers for visual appeal. The backyard is devoted to vegetables — it has lettuce, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, garlic and onions. She also maintains a garden at a neighbor’s house, where they grow tomatoes, peppers and green beans.

“I really feel the difference in not having my vegetables in the winter time because my grocery bill goes up,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who lives in public housing, is grateful for the financial benefits she has gained but also enjoys the beauty of her gardens. The center introduced her to edible flowers, so now she can combine beauty and nutrition.

Anderson has been so thrilled with her Opportunity Garden that she has become an ambassador of the program. She helps pair potential recipients with the center and provides assistance to people with gardens in the neighborhood. She said a lot of the people in her neighborhood, which Polansky said is one of the two most impoverished census blocks in Columbia, are immigrants and refugees from different climates or non-agricultural areas. She offers advice about when to start planting, what plants grow best and how to nurture them through harvest.

She has become an example of the kind of gardener the center wants to nurture.

“The best part is seeing people who are inspired by our projects and who are affected by them enough to go on and do gardening things themselves,” Polansky said.

The biggest commitment for participants in the Opportunity Garden program is time, Saunders said. He said there is always something to learn because there’s always something you can do inside a garden to make it better.

If a family doesn’t have a qualifying yard, meaning it is either too small or is blocked from sunlight, or lives in an apartment, the center offers small container gardens to grow herbs.

But even with the flexibility of adding a small container garden, for time commitment issues or other reasons, Opportunity Gardens aren’t always the answer for low-income families. Therefore, the center tries to serve others with its Planting for the Pantry program.

In this program, the center asks donors to sponsor a row of vegetables on its farm. For every dollar of sponsorship, 50 cents goes towards growing fresh produce that is donated to local food pantries. Twenty-five cents helps supports educational work, such as the center’s apprenticeship program, at the urban farm and the cost of opportunity gardens. Another 25 cents is invested in an endowment fund to help sustain the business over time. The goal for that protected fund is $200,000.

One beneficiary of the pantry program is the Annie Fisher Food Pantry, which is run by the Columbia Housing Authority.

Adam Saunders, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture | Courtesy of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
Adam Saunders | Courtesy of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

Last year, the center donated 2,320 pounds of produce to Annie Fisher — enough for about 11,500 servings of a mix of leafy greens and other vegetables.

R.V. Pride, the manager of Annie Fisher Food Pantry, said food from the center has become a key component for inventory at the pantry, which serves as many as 140 people a week.

“When your bills are short and your money is short, the food pantry comes in handy,” Pride said.

The center is also planning to expand the program this year by adding donations to Tiger Pantry, a student-run food pantry that provides food access to University of Missouri students, staff and faculty.

A third program run by the center is Edible Landscaping. For $30 an hour, center workers plant fruit trees, berry plants and herbs on commercial and residential properties, and will install fencing, rain barrels and other yard maintenance systems. The revenue helps support Opportunity Gardens and the center’s operating budget.

Garden Greenhorn is a 12-week apprenticeship program that brings people to the center’s urban farm twice a week to work with the farm manager to learn about seeding, planting, watering and weeding through an entire growing season.

The goal of the program is to provide participants with the knowledge and skills required to grow their own garden. It can get them interested in a possible career in agriculture, Polansky said.

Additionally, the center offers tours and field trips, workshops, and presentations to share knowledge on urban farming and to raise awareness about the lack of access to healthy food.

‘Grow up, not out’

Bringing this vision to fruition has largely been an investment of faith, not unlike planting a seed and trusting it will grow. The founders started by volunteering their time. Three years ago, full-time employees were paid $10,000. That has increased to $20,000 this year. Many of the center’s workers hold other jobs to supplement that income.

Soetaert says the gradual increase in salaries fits the rest of the center’s strategy — to improve current programs before adding others.

“The strategic planning motto is to grow up, not out,” Soetaert said. “We shouldn’t take on a lot of new things until these things that are working get into the spot we know they need to be at.”

There are more ideas than there is time, Saunders said, and he emphasized the importance of taking things one day at a time.

“I’m the cockeyed optimist. I like screening ideas,” Saunders said. “It’s just throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. But if it doesn’t, set it aside, hold on to it and tweak it a bit in the future.”

As part of its growing up strategy, the center is working with United Way to expand the Opportunity Gardens program and turn it into an entrepreneurial venture. The goal is to plant raised gardens and use the produce to make salsa, which would then be packaged and sold by students, who would keep a small profit.

“I think it holds great potential,” Rich said. “We could pull in partnerships with the farmers market, perhaps with the Chamber of Commerce, Regional Economic Development, possibly Douglass School. I mean, there are lots of potential partners.”

Overall, the company’s strategy is rooted in education – using its knowledge to teach and help others – and not in personal gratification.

“The sum is greater than its parts,” Soetaert said. “CCUA has the approach that we’re laid back and work as a team, but we’re gonna work our butts off.”

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