Just one bite.
That’s all it took for Montgomery Deputy Mayor Jeff Downes to start changing his life.
He helped start an urban farm that’s tucked behind the Montgomery Advertiser building in an old rail yard next to the Alabama River. Downes simply thought the garden would be a good use of the empty space, which was an eyesore for people driving into the city.
Then he ate a carrot – freshly picked and washed.
“It was an epiphany,” he says. “If that carrot is good what else might be good?”
Kale, beets and arugula followed, grown in the 25 raised beds that now produce about 80 different fruits, vegetables and herbs. He’s since lost 30 pounds and learned he likes grilled eggplant with Greek seasoning as much as a lot of his fried Southern favorites. His kids now ask for salad.
It’s a personal shift for Downes and a cultural shift spreading out of small plots of vacant land in cities across the U.S. For Montgomery, the downtown urban farm is one aspect of a larger city plan for schools and low-income neighborhoods to have similar small farms.
“The growth of this concept moves beyond the downtown site and into the community,” Downes says.
The model harkens back to before the era of railroads when every city was surrounded by farms, says Edwin Marty, executive director of the Hampstead Institute, a nonprofit teaching farm that has the farm in downtown Montgomery as well as one in Hampstead.
“The best way to make sure people eat good, healthy food is to make it available,” Marty says.
The institute sells the produce and flowers from both farms to local restaurants and through a Community Supported Agriculture program, where residents pay a fee to receive a box of what’s fresh.
That in turn supports education programs on the farms, with the vision Marty describes as “a garden in every school and a school in every garden.”
“We’ve been able to develop new school gardens, and in addition provide training for their teachers on how to utilize the school garden,” he says.
Teaching Students to Garden
The Jones Valley Teaching Farm – a project Marty helped start before moving to the Hampstead Institute – is working on a similar principal in Birmingham. The 3,500 students who visited the teaching farm in 2012, learned about plant science and harvesting before taking their produce to the neighboring YMCA youth center kitchen to cook it up.
“Squash – being in the South, you’d think most people have seen squash grow, but a lot of kids haven’t and are hesitant to try it,” says Bree Belcher, nutrition coordinator at Jones Valley Teaching Farm. “Then we teach them it’s a fruit and full of vitamin A and teach them how to harvest it and sauté it in olive oil with fresh Parmesan. They love it.”
Belcher says they hope to have 5,000 students next year and to keep expanding.
Moving toward that expansion, one pilot program that is in the works includes a farmers market at Glen Iris Elementary School in downtown Birmingham run by the school’s fifth graders. The students are responsible for everything, including accounting, stocking and marketing.
“We’re hoping it’s successful and other schools will want to replicate it,” Belcher says.
Urban Gardening Goes Online
With more people caring where their food comes from, another Alabama entrepreneur is working on connecting people to local food.
Freshfully.com co-owner Jen Barnett describes the website as an eBay for farmers.
“We wanted to eat more from local farms but we couldn’t find it,” she says. “We saw cows and we saw fields but we weren’t sure where to get the food.”
Barnett’s team has created a website where users can enter a zip code and located fruits, vegetables and meats in their area and where to pick them up. It’s the next step for CSAs, Barnett says.
Freshfully helps connect customers to farmers while also compiling food galleries of what’s in season with recipes. The site takes a 14 percent cut for the marketing, organizing and location and are in the process of expanding within Alabama and throughout the South.
“It’s important to us that farmers see a big cut, it encourages them to grow more and grow more diverse and healthier foods,” Barnett says. “We want it to be lucrative for them to grow vegetables.”
The Freshfully offices became a CSA exchange spot, which led to the opening of the website’s first brick and mortar store in May 2012. Farmers deliver directly to the store and Freshfully sells to consumers. It’s like a farmers market that stays open until 7 p.m. seven days a week and sells nearly all Alabama-grown products.
“There’s no question people want to buy food grown in Alabama,” Barnett says. “They want to know where it is and they want to find it. There’s a lot of pride in eating local.”