The sites you see around downtown St. Louis are not strikingly different from those of any other large city. When driving down 22nd street between Market and Pine Street, however, you will see something that would ordinarily seem out of place in a city: a farm.
The sites you see around downtown St. Louis are not strikingly different from those of any other large city. Office towers, courthouses, bars and restaurants all come into view. When driving down 22nd street between Market and Pine Street, however, you will see something that would ordinarily seem out of place in a city: a farm.
This green space acts as more than just an unusual sight in downtown St. Louis though; it provides a beacon of hope for people in the city who are often hopeless.
City Seeds Urban Farm lies on two and half acres in downtown St. Louis on land provided by the Missouri Department of Transportation. It is just one of dozens of urban farms in St. Louis mentored by the umbrella organization, Gateway Greening. Clients of St. Patrick Center, the largest provider of homeless services in Missouri, tend the farm. Through working on the farm these clients attempt to cope with mental illnesses, overcome homelessness, and beat drug addictions. Tremayne, a former participant in the Therapeutic Horticulture program, says that through working on the farm he “learned a great peace.”
The Therapeutic Horticulture program is a 15 week learning program run by City Seeds that assists people dealing with issues ranging from chronic addiction to recent prison release to homelessness. The program teaches clients about growing their own food, nutrition, and helps clients with their own personal recovery goals through nature journaling, and connecting the 12 steps of gardening with the 12 steps of recovery used in Alcoholics Anonymous.
According to Annie Mayrose, City Seeds Coordinator, to participate in the program, applicants must meet certain requirements. St. Patrick’s Center recruits participants through case managers who recommend clients who are in good standing. They require clients receive an exam in order to ensure that clients have the physical ability to work in the garden as well as perform additional screening to ensure the candidates they choose will learn and benefit from participating in the program.
The therapeutic horticulture program is small, with only around 10 people enrolled in it at a time. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, clients enrolled in the program work on the farm for a few hours, doing things such as planting seeds, pulling weeds, or attending a horticulture class. On Friday, the clients meet at St. Patrick’s Center to attend a horticulture therapy class led by Ariana Fox, City Seeds Program Coordinator for St. Patrick Center. According to Fox, one of the key components of this class teaches the 12 steps of gardening, which are metaphorically connected to the 12 steps of Alcoholic Anonymous. She explains that “Many clients, but not all, are already familiar with the 12 steps of AA,” making it easy for them to understand the metaphor. Other classes present lessons on servant leadership, and goal setting.
“Everyone comes into the program with a life issue they are working on” says Fox, “some want to be healthier, some want to graduate from the program, some want to work on their social skills”. Through working on the farm, clients get exercise and sunlight while working on learning the skills to grow their own food, and learning to work and get along with other people. Then in the class, people share with each other and discuss what is going on in their own life. “Plants have deficiencies, and so do people” says Fox. These kinds of metaphors help people connect the growth they tend to on the farm to the growth they tend to in themselves. When asked what she wants most for clients to gain from the program Mayrose replied that “it depends on what their individual goals are; it may be a little different for each person.”
She described how the program helps the clients form connections with other people working in the farm and build a community together. The farm, she says, “becomes a very welcoming place for people who are otherwise ostracized from society.” Tremayne said that he met many friends through the program that he is still friends with today. Mayrose also described that working in the farm teaches self-sufficiency and gives participants the self-confidence they may lack in other areas of their life. When they graduate from the program clients gain a sense of accomplishment and are able to make a speech at graduation. By following through with something, clients learn how to make goals and see themselves as capable people. One of the reasons Fox believes the program succeeds is that it takes action. Working on the farm supplies a tangible way for people to overcome the problems they face. Instead of only telling people they should sober up, eat healthier, and get exercise, it provides a way for them to do that.
“We need to move away from that system and move towards a food system that’s environmentally and socially just”.
Tremayne, a recent graduate of the Therapeutic Horticulture Program, became involved with the program when his counselor at St. Patrick Center suggested it to him. He said he liked getting his day started growing things as well as going to class getting to talk about himself and what he was going through. When asked what going to the weekly horticulture therapy class meant to him he said that it “relieved a lot of the loneliness and let me know that people out there care”. This past winter City Seeds hired him to work sowing seeds in the greenhouses, so he continues to stay engaged in the farm. Through working on the farm Tremayne says “I learned peace with the earth and a new appreciation knowing where our food comes from.”Today he says he writes a lot and works toward financial stability by exploring the neighborhood and getting himself familiar with the resources he needs.
Urban farms are more than a way for people to overcome homelessness; they are a viable and sustainable way to address food inequalities in urban areas. Fox thinks one thing urban farms can do is improve peoples’ health. In a society where the poor often have to rely on processed and fast food, people miss out on the nutrients gained from eating fresh produce. Urban farms can break up food deserts by giving people in a community an easy an affordable way to grow their own produce and become more self-reliant. She also believes urban farms should make us think about the food systems we rely on. The food system in the United States depends largely on monoculture crops and processed foods we buy in the frozen food section. Fox believes that as a society “we need to move away from that system and move towards a food system that’s environmentally and socially just”.
In food deserts, or areas where healthy and affordable foods are hard to obtain; urban farms are an oasis. By increasing access to fresh produce to people who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to attain it, the level of nutrition in a community will increase. They show a positive image of life being cultivated in areas of the city that may appear to be dead. Urban farms deserve support because they address the issue of food inequalities in areas that hunger for justice. If you are interested in donating to or volunteering at City Seeds or another urban farm in St. Louis visit www.gatewaygreening.org.