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GOOD Ideas for Cities: Growing A Local Food System for St. Louis

A group of local food activist shows that sometimes, the best solutions come from changing city policy.

St. Louis, Missouri is surrounded by some of the country's richest farmland. That's why it's all the more frustrating that local residents eat produce grown hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. In February, GOOD Ideas for Cities came to St. Louis, providing a platform for groups to address citywide problems. Comprised of local food enthusiasts, STL Provocateur took the stage to present a solution toward fixing the city's local food problem. What was most extraordinary about STL Provocateur's presentation was that the solution they proposed was not a physical one—the group's participants focused on advocating a policy change that would allow and encourage urban agriculture in St. Louis. Within four months of presenting the idea, the policy, named Board Bill 79, passed in July.

STL Provocateur's presentation from the March 8 event

Rhonda Smythe, a local food activist, brought together the STL Provocateur team to collaborate on a solution. "St. Louis has a vibrant local food scene, though much of the activity has been centered around the distribution of locally grown food to restaurants and farmers markets due to increased demand," says Smythe. "There are several groups working to support urban agriculture at the community level: Gateway Greening works with over 200 community gardens and four hub gardens, and the International Institute's Global Farm trains refugees how to build a successful farm career in the States. There are many community projects and initiatives that are unconnected, and up until June, no supportive policies for urban agriculture."

For Smythe, this was bigger than just addressing policy change to increase the presence of local produce. "The issues we want to tackle are deeper than the aggregation and distribution of local food," said Smythe. "The local food movement lacks equity and a focus on nutrition education and cooking skills. We believe environmental and cultural change is necessary to support healthier eating—merely providing people with fresh vegetables does not mean they will like or want them."

A slide from STL Provocateur's presentation

Another member of STL Provocateur is Craig Heller, who is leading the development of a local food hub called FarmWorks. As a public-private partnership, FarmWorks is an indoor urban farm, transitional residential facility and educational hub all rolled into one. Working within the local food community, Heller observes that St. Louis is extremely unique: a large city with an agribusiness background. Local food initiatives can get a leg up by capitalizing on some of the agricultural knowledge base in the area. "There's the Danforth Science Center here, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, the University—there are a lot of entities here that can really help." Positively changing the urban agriculture policy was key for STL Provocateur because it opens up the city to an incredibly unique opportunity. "A little outside of the core of downtown Boston is Harvard, there is no open acreage," says Heller, noting that FarmWorks is barely a few miles from the downtown of St. Louis. "When it comes to urban agriculture, outside of the larger cities on the outskirt of a downtown core, you don't have open acreage. So in some ways, we're uniquely situated."

A detail of the proposed urban farm at FarmWorks

STL Provocateur might have changed policy to encourage the growth of local food, but that's only the first step in a much longer process. "For local food to be bigger, you have to have an effective distribution system," explains Heller. "There are many produce growers in the area that would love to get their produce into the St. Louis marketplace, but that's really hard. They have to talk to 20 or 30 restaurants to get people to work with them." The key for STL Provocateur is getting healthy, local produce into neighborhood gardens and corner stores—even if people aren't interested or simply don't have the time to participate in gardening, they can still support the neighborhood effort by shopping at stores nearby. "Our focus is on neighborhood-level initiatives where it is possible to change health behaviors through hands on experience growing food in community gardens paired with education at the schools and hub facility," says Smythe. "Kids will be a vital part of the education piece as their eating behaviors and habits have yet to be solidified. Their involvement and excitement in leading these programs will be key to drawing parents and the community into the gardens and changing local food culture."

The STL Provocateur team, from a profile by Alive Magazine

Smythe admits that there are some roadblocks in the way. "STL Provocateur's biggest hurdle is that we are all hyper-active in our many volunteer and neighborhood commitments and do not have the capacity to pilot a new program through to completion." For now, their main goals are to continue to introduce policy that reduces barriers to urban agriculture, and funnel all community food project information into one resource. They also hope to lead edible foraging walks in local neighborhoods, and host an event for National Food Day.

Best of all, STL Provocateur is in a city that is open to positive change, encouraging creatives to get involved. "The City of St. Louis has been accessible and eager to work with us," says Smythe. "They are focused on creating an environment that draws the creative class to St. Louis and see urban agriculture as an important piece in doing so." But Heller adds that getting locals onboard is tough but totally possible. "If you can do this in the Midwest, and prove this system, I think you can do it just about anywhere."

STL Provocateur will be one of four teams from our St. Louis event reporting on their progress at an event on September 26 as part of St. Louis Design Week. Check out the St. Louis Design Week website for details.

Top image: A rendering of the urban agriculture facility proposed by FarmWorks

GOOD Ideas for Cities pairs creative problem-solvers with real urban challenges proposed by civic leaders. To learn more visit Watch more videos of recent GOOD Ideas for Cities events, and if you'd like to talk about bringing the program to your city or school, email alissa[at]goodinc[dot]com or follow us at @IdeasforCities

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