St. Louis Org. Embraces Urban Agriculture to Empower Individuals and Strengthen Community
June 16, 2016 | Annamarie Sysling
Gateway Greening has been taking a holistic approach to urban agriculture, gardening, and education in St. Louis for more than three decades.
“Our mission is to educate and empower individuals to strengthen their communities through gardening and urban agriculture,” Gateway Greening’s Communications Manager Jenna Davis says.
While the group started out as a gardening club focused on ornamental, native, and perennial plants, Davis says it has since blossomed into a three-pronged catalyst for grassroots community building.
This includes providing support for more than 200 community gardens throughout the city. By offering help and guidance to communities interested in creating new gardens, and providing gardeners with infrastructure, tools, and other support, Gateway Greening has become the go-to resource for urban gardening in St. Louis. And according to Davis, fresh produce isn’t the only benefit.
“Neighbors are coming together and entire neighborhoods are becoming safer,” Davis says.
This is no small feat in St. Louis, where violent crime and murder rates have risen significantly in recent years. In creating more participation and awareness around urban gardening, safe outdoor activities, and grassroots education, Gateway Greening is finding that many residents are becoming more invested in their neighborhoods, which the organization hopes will lead to safer, healthier communities.
In order to sustain this progress in future generations, Gateway Greening also focuses on providing opportunities for children to interact with food cultivation. Currently, Gateway Greening has facilitated gardens at more than 70 schools in St. Louis. Davis says the green spaces on school grounds are referred to as “support gardens” because they can be used by teachers as an outdoor classroom. Teachers also use elements of the gardens as inspiration for framing lessons in almost any subject.
“You can teach creative writing in a garden, math by figuring out the square footage of the space, and of course science,” Davis says.
In the future, Davis says she would like to see expanded programming in these school gardens, especially because of the challenges St. Louis residents face in accessing fresh, healthy food. She says if the gardens could produce enough fresh produce at a high enough quality, they could serve as a convenient source of fresh food to incorporate into school lunches for students.
Enter Gateway Greening’s 2.5 acre urban farm, located in downtown St. Louis. The farm is host to a job training and horticulture therapy program that partners with the homeless services organization St. Patrick Center to facilitate a 15-week program for homeless and impoverished St. Louisans to work together to grow a volume of food. Clients of the St. Patrick Center work with a caseworker to improve their nutrition education through gardening, while addressing their challenges in reaching their recovery goals. The program pairs farm work with other nature-based activities like nature journaling and meditation.
The program has hosted nearly 250 clients over the last decade, during which time the farm has also grown to produce approximately 14,000 pounds of produce per year. The harvest includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including beets, collards, bok choy, turnips, peaches, squash, and plums.
“Many of these people are dealing with homelessness and substance abuse, so working in the garden has been really life-changing for them,” Davis says. “It’s almost like the growth of the garden reflects the growth in their lives.”
Even after three decades of making a positive impact and a strong reputation, Davis says the organization’s biggest challenge is still getting the word out about its work. Gateway Greening has attempted to remedy this by periodically reaching out to schools that aren’t already participating in the garden program and combining outreach with creative fundraising, like its Veggie Election campaign, which asks people to donate by voting for their favorite vegetable in an online poll. The organization has also simplified its garden application process by requiring a clear set of development milestones of each applicant before Gateway Greening will provide any material support. The organization is also dreaming of developing a “campus or visitor center” type of space people can visit to see urban gardens and learn about the organization in the same place.
But regardless of what scheme the organization comes up with, Davis says people engage best with Gateway Greening while walking past one of its gardens, a reminder that growing food is often just a medium for accomplishing many other goals.
“You have neighbors talking to each other, increased security, property values are going up because of it, people are learning entrepreneurial skills– in many ways food is the end result, but many other things are accomplished along the way.”