Saturday, September 4, 2010

East of Troost -- Urban Farming Projects Battle Neighborhood Decline

The bold vision of East Meets West of Troost was on display during a five-stop urban farm tour on September 2. Sasteh Mosley, tour guide with many years of working in the urban agriculture field, provided a wide view of the effort of both East Meets West, as well as other groups. Sasteh's co-worker SahjKaya accompanied the tour.

Left to right: Steve Mann with EcoRadio KC, Sasteh Mosley
with East Meets West, and Desire' Hendricks at Garden of
Eden urban farm near 27th and Prospect in Kansas City.
East Meets West focuses on three key areas -- urban farming, recycling, and young artist support. The group's ambitious program to reclaim areas such as the tough neighborhood around 27th and Prospect is underscored by the replacement of crosses marking deaths at the intersection with large vegetable farms. These large garden plots may not always be visible during a drive through this area, but abundant gardens appear when we walk up to the plots, like at the first stop on the tour called "Garden of Eden."

Sasteh introduces our small group -- Steve Mann with KKFI's "EcoRadio KC" radio show, Desire' Hendricks with Harvesters food bank, and me -- to Ricky Stanley, a transplant from Alabama, who worked at Garden of Eden -- and the tour begins!

Sasteh has an easy-going temperament and peppers his tour with a subtle humor. He is a veritable atlas of information, describing degrees of vegetarianism, changes in the Kansas City ordinance around informal produce sales, maintenance of collard green plants to lengthen the harvest duration, the history of white flight on the East side, and the toxic aftermath of home demolitions. The issue of home demolitions is a signficant concern because many of these older homes were demolished and buried in the space of the basement, leaving a toxic mess of lead paint and asbestos. The mess produces a questionable viability for growing food on empty lots that community organizations and churches acquire through lease or purchase.

"City Fresh" farm near 21st and Montgall in Washington-
Wheatley neighborhood. From left: Sasteh Mosley, Steve
Mann, and Desire' Hendricks.
From Garden of Eden just north of 27th and Prospect we went to "City Fresh," a farm operated by the Washington-Wheatley neighborhood association near 21st and Montgall streets. A well-established neighborhood marked by a high poverty rate. The neighborhood association bought the plot of land, tested the soil, and built the garden using dollars partially provided by a Federal economic stimulus program, as well as hired workers to take care of the garden plot.

Groups working together in these neighborhoods have developed partnerships with each other, plus with local universities, like when Washington-Wheatley worked with a university to test the soil in the City Fresh farm we visited at 21st and Montgall.

Sasteh suggested that the large city-funded expense of lawncare for the 25% vacant homes in the area could be better served purchasing garden tools and seeds. Groups have pressed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test empty lots to ensure safe growing environments. The EPA has responded with timely testing of lots, backing up the government agency's focus on environmental justice as found in their policies and programs, as well as their "Faces of the Grassroots" video contest.

Sasteh pointed out that these groups work with and seek resources from a variety of sources, including the Kansas City municipal government, Federal stimulus funds, and private foundations like the Menorah Legacy Foundation, to name a few.

Sunflower plants on the corner of a urban farm near 19th
and College in Kansas City, Missouri.
The third stop on the tour was at a highly productive farm located near 19th and College. This large plot was developed by an urban farmer, which was distinguished from other farms owned by the neighborhood association.  Here Sasteh explained how the group is connecting youth with green jobs available through the Full Employment Council and other programs. East Meets West is getting "boots and belts" on younger workers to prepare them for work in construction and lawncare fields.

He described the difficulty of the task of getting any youth to pursue hard work like on the urban farms, emphasizing his personal dedication to the task when he revealed the violent death of his own brother. He devotes his energy to uplifting youth and changing parts of the East side so that families and neighborhoods don't have to experience his loss.

A number of people and groups involved in city farming programs seek to significantly reduce violence. The programs are focused in high-crime areas, like near 27th and Prospect, where loiterers pass near the busy intersections. Sasteh mentioned how they seek to develop jobs and businesses for individuals as one way to cleanup the crime and drug trafficking. He recalled how some were critical of the effort to establish produce sales at local stores or directly at farms. Some suggested that the produce sales would degrade housing values or give the appearance of trafficking. He said "we're not worried about transactions -- we have 'transactions' 24x7. We're not worried about housing values declining -- values can't go any lower."

We drove by urban farm #4 on the tour -- a large garden plot maintained by Emmanuel Baptist Church one block west of 35th and Prospect. He noted that the church used for Federal dollars to develop the plot.

Miss Erica's farm at 52nd and Paseo in Kansas City
demonstrates an irrigation technique to water the greens.
The final stop on the tour at Miss Erica's  garden-farm showed a large plot with immaculately-clean rows -- not a weed was in sight. Here Sasteh distinguished vegetable gardens, where quality food and healthy lifestyles are started, from urban farms, where an economy can be developed by providing jobs for workers or an income for produce sales.

Miss Erica's site displayed a sign describing how consumers could double the purchasing power of their Food Stamps/SNAP or EBT allowance by buying produce at six area locations, including Miss Erica's Troostwood location. Sasteh described how the "Beans & Greens" program that matches the food stamp dollars was supported by various organizations and foundations like the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, Missouri Department of Agriculture, among others.

Amidst the poverty obvious in several areas during the tour, the focus of these programs is concentrated on economic and job development, not directly on hunger relief. This indicates a strong vision and practice by Sasteh and SahjKaya at East Meets West of Troost.

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