Cultivating a Local Food System for Kansas City

RSF Social Finance Seed Fund Grantee Highlight
Jan 28, 2014 1:25 PM ET

by Meredith Storton

Kansas City, Kansas, like many urban areas in the United States, has its share of food deserts – low-income neighborhoods devoid of fresh, healthy foods; it also has its share of vacant land. Cultivate Kansas City, a local non-profit, is changing the landscape and engaging the entire community with a healthy, environmentally-sustainable venture: urban farming.

Founded in 2005, Cultivate Kansas City promotes urban farming as a way to build a healthy local food system. Along the way they have become advocates, educators, and activists supporting the production of organic, nutritious produce on the ground and in the policy space. One population that Cultivate is introducing to urban farming is the Kansas City refugee community. Responding to a demand for more community garden space for low-income refugee families, Cultivate partnered with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and three refugee organizations to begin the Juniper Gardens Training Farm and the New Roots for Refugees program. Since the program began in 2010, two gardens have been established: the Bhutanese Community Garden and the Somali Bantu Foundation garden. A third will be established in 2014.

For each of these gardens, Cultivate provides the gardeners with training, basic seeds, and supplies. The gardeners receive their training at the Juniper Gardens Training Farm, an eight-acre plot of land adjacent to a public housing site where many of the refugee families live, making the location both accessible and convenient. Once these gardens are fully developed, they will help up to 600 individuals living in poverty grow food for themselves and for sale at farmer’s markets. Further, these gardens allow refugees from Bhutan, Somalia, Burma, and elsewhere to grow vegetables from their home countries, like blue Burmese pumpkins, African corn, bitter melon, Hmong red cucumber, and more.

RSF Social Finance was able to provide Cultivate Kansas City with a $3,000 grant through the Seed Fund to support their work establishing the second of these gardens for the Somali Bantu community. The Somali Bantu live in northeastern Kansas City where one grocery store serves a six-mile radius and one-third of the families earn less than $10,000 annually (ISED Solutions, Apr. 2010). In Somalia, the main occupation for Bantu people is farming, so urban farming seems to be an ideal way to help them assimilate into their new home while providing them with access to fresh, healthy produce.

The nearly one-acre plot of land that will be used for this garden was donated by the Somali Bantu Foundation of Kansas, an organization dedicated to the resettlement and integration of Somali Bantu refugees. Upon first glance, the land did not appear ideal for farming; it was heavily sloped and filled with weeds and construction debris. Urban farmers make do with what’s available, though, and Cultivate Kansas City and Somali Bantu Foundation volunteers cleared the land, formed terraces, composted the soil, and planted cover crops. As a result of their efforts, a little over a half-acre is now ready for planting.

Juniper Gardens Training Farm

Before the growing season begins, Cultivate Kansas City will help install two cisterns for the garden which will help them plan for water costs ahead of time (instead of connecting to the city water system directly). The plan is to plant the first vegetables in the spring, and the first harvest will be ready for enjoyment and sale at local farmers markets in the summer. To get their new gardeners ready, Cultivate Kansas City will offer workshops covering basic gardening, soil management, and planting for the region and season. They will also work with the gardeners to order seeds and supplies. The garden’s benefits will reach beyond the gardeners to their neighbors and families who will have access to fresh, healthy, culturally-appropriate, and affordable produce.

Cultivate Kansas City is doing some ground-breaking work –they’ve helped start more than 40 farms and have provided thousands of hours of technical assistance to hundreds each year. But there’s still more to be done. As their Executive Director Katherine Kelly said, “there is food to be grown and money to be made and empty lots to be turned into assets rather than blight!” Cultivate Kansas City wants to grow a movement of people who know that they can reclaim the food system and their communities, and who know there is joy and power in the process. It seems they are off to a great start.

RSF is now accepting applications for 2014 Seed Fund grantees! Learn more here

Meredith Storton is Client Development Associate at RSF Social Finance