Writing this post during my semester at NACEDA was a journey that started with a problem and ended up as a profile of a remarkable solution.
I had planned an analysis of food deserts, how they are defined, what their costs are to society, and an overview of the critical questions about their debatable existence.
And indeed, the overall body of research does not produce a blanket confirmation that food deserts exist, as portrayed by many advocates. However, it is clear that poorer neighborhoods fall behind wealthier ones in life expectancy, obesity rates, and a litany of other troubling health and wealth statistics. These trends stem from a combination of diverse factors, including the aggressive advertising and presence of fast food, general economic conditions, pollution, and more. We cannot successfully target a single scapegoat—especially one as vague and difficult to measure as a food desert.
So I shifted focus from the problem to the solution. I reached out to the NACEDA network and asked what they were doing to fight poor health and improve disinvested neighborhoods. Getting a response was not difficult—communities across America are developing innovative ways to boost public health.
In Ohio, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) has encouraged citizens to develop small agricultural enterprises on vacant lots. To support this effort, YNDC’s Iron Roots Urban Farm serves as a working farm and training center,training city residents in economically viable market gardening techniques and incubating successful microenterprises. In addition to offering affordable fresh produce, YNDC’s website goes on to detail their hope to “empower residents to help themselves” by seizing the opportunity of abundant vacant land.
The story of Sophia Buggs, a Youngstown native and dedicated employee of Iron Roots, provides a window into how small-scale urban farming might transform vulnerable neighborhoods and tap into entrepreneurial spirit nationwide.
After high school, Sophia found herself in Daytona Beach, Florida,studying for a degree in criminal justice and, later, education. She graduated and started her career, but never really became attached to the community or found fulfilment. After being laid off, she returned to her grandmother’s house in Youngstown, without a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and “tried to make it work.”
Eventually, Sophia became an urban farmer. She says that her journey “was not unique,” and that many others have come into urban farming from diverse origins. At home, Sophia was encouraged by friends and neighbors to tend to her grandmother’s garden—they loved her grandmother’s homemade zucchini bread and cucumber salad. I thought, I can do this,’ and went from container gardening, to backyard gardening, to gardening on empty urban lots,” Sophia recalls. Her passion was fueled by “not wanting to work for someone else again, wanting to be my own boss and take control of my future.”
After completing the Specialty Crop Apprentice Program at Ohio State University, Sophia took a AmeriCorps VISTA position at NeighborWorks America, and from there began to work with YNDC on urban farming. Eventually, she became directly employed by YNDC. Today, she builds capacity by bringing folks to the Iron Roots farm, either for free farming or cooking classes. Sophia calls herself aa “jack of all trades;” helping growers throughout the city take ownership of the land they have planted on.
“I’m not your typical farmer. As a black woman with nose piercings, I don’t fit the stereotype,” Sophia notes. Indeed, urban farming doesn’t fit Americans’ general perception of agriculture. There are no wide open fields, super-sized farm vehicles, or amber waves of grain. But that does not make Sophia any less of a farmer or urban farming any less important.
To Sophia, Iron Roots Farm is “a one-stop shop.” It provides so much more than just fresh food. “It serves as a focal point in the community, allowing people to come together,” Sophia explains. The Farm has a measurable, firm presence; with farmers’ markets, community meetings, appearances by employees on local radio, and large solar panels visible throughout the neighborhood. “We aren’t too uppity to go door-to-door,” Sophia says. “People pull up to the farm to ask questions—you might envision it as an alternative to a fast food drive-through.”
Hearing Sophia’s fervent enthusiasm for urban farms and their benefits for Youngstown, I asked her how YNDC’s success could spread to other areas around the country. She emphasized “awareness,” arguing that “this will spread naturally if people are aware.” She did not, notably, suggest more grants or government dollars, but she did remark that site visits by key administration officials could help give urban farming an air of legitimacy.
The impact made by Sophia and her colleagues at YNDC shows that solutions for America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods don’t need to be as complex and intertwined as the problems they intend to solve. Every challenge—income inequality, drug abuse, poor education, or food accessibility and affordability—is influenced by and contributes to all the others. Iron Roots Farm exemplifies an approach that can have a hugely beneficial impact on public health across America because it empowers residents to have ownership of their neighborhoods.
Sophia taught me the importance of focusing on solutions. She didn’t need me or anyone else to describe or debate with her the existence/size/costs of food deserts, vacancy, disinvestment or any of the other challenges her neighborhood faces. She lives there. She experiences them every day. What Sophia and other community practitioners need is exposure to actionable solutions that improve health, communities, neighborhoods, and lives. And she provided one.
To read the full story from NACEDA, click here.