If you’ve even heard of the term “food desert,” chances are you didn’t realize that there is one right here in Louisville.
In the Hazelwood neighborhood in south central Louisville, there are a shockingly limited amount of grocery stores, with fewer than 10 percent considered “healthy” by the modified Retail Food Environmental Index.
Hazelwood faces some other pretty dire statistics as well: higher than average disease and mortality rates, with life expectancy rating a staggering 11.4 years less than those living elsewhere in Jefferson County; unemployment rates that rank more than double that of the rest of Louisville, with more than half of its children living in poverty; and 96 percent of children on free or reduced lunch service at Hazelwood Elementary (1325 Bluegrass Ave.).
Could the solution to these issues be found on a 42-acre tract of land that used to hold a low-income housing complex? According to city officials, private corporations and nonprofit organizations, the answer is a resounding yes.
An Urban Agricultural Oasis
Formerly the site of Iroquois Homes public housing, the large tract of land was eyed for several years as a potential urban agricultural oasis. Vacant since 2001 as a result of high crime and poor living conditions, the land was first recognized by Gate of Hope, a local nonprofit group that serves refugee families from east Africa.
Through a partnership with Louisville Grows, the Hope Garden Project was born. The groups currently are working with 25 refugee growers who farm nearly a third of an acre each, and they have another 35 growers who are interested in joining the CSA that was set up by the organizations.
According to program leaders, participating growers are just reaping more than the benefits of land and education.
“We have weekly meetings that are a therapy component for them,” says Valerie Magnuson, the director of Louisville Grows.
“We’re going to be doing discussion-based therapy because many of them have lived through terrible trauma in their lives, and we are looking at the Hope Garden Project as an opportunity for them to heal and to form relationships with people outside of their usual networks.”
To maximize the success of the project, the groups have secured a lucrative partnership with a Save-A-Lot grocery in the area whereby the store is committing to purchase a large amount of the crops that are grown in the garden.
Just the Beginning
On another tract of the land, which has now been dubbed the Iroquois Urban Farm Project, private healthcare company KentuckyOne Health hopes to grow an innovative “farm-to-hospital-table” concept as a continuation of their commitment to the health of their patients and to the communities they serve.
In conjunction with the Food Literacy Project, KentuckyOne Health has worked for the past two years with Hazelwood Elementary on a project called “Farm-to-Family Obesity Prevention Initiative,” which has seen significant gains. Since it’s start in October 2013, participating students now report that 41 percent eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, 91 percent report that they engage in 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day, 90 percent have eaten a vegetable that they harvested themselves, and 93 percent report knowing how to prepare a healthy recipe.
According to Alice Bridges, vice-president of healthy communities at KentuckyOne Health, the initiative with Hazelwood Elementary is central to one of the rising core missions of her organization.
“We’ve been on a journey to really build a healthier community in so many different ways and really trying to leverage the assets of KentuckyOne Health, which is the largest health system in Kentucky, in new ways that move us from addressing sickness to really address wellness meaningfully,” she says.
“That means getting outside the walls of a traditional health system and working in collaboration with community partners and working upstream to address the root causes of poor health.”
The next phase of KentuckyOne Health’s Hazelwood neighborhood plan may very well put the entire city on the map of innovative urban agriculture.
The company plans to utilize 8.7 acres of the Iroquois Urban Farm Project as a living laboratory to test the viability of a “farm-to-hospital-table concept.”
According to the company, “there are many challenges around family-scale agriculture and sales to institutions, particularly with high commercial grading standards and relatively low pricing. This project will fuel institutional change, making food available to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital, employing local farmers, and supporting a robust evaluation with a goal of forging a new market for small area growers.”
Bridges says the company is looking at the project as a two-year pilot, after which they hope to replicate its success across its entire network. Before that can happen, however, they are seeking support from the community.
“The project won’t come to fruition if we don’t raise enough money to make some of the site improvements that we need,” says Bridges, who notes that the land needs some structures built and electrical service before it can be a fully workable farm for them.
Urban Agriculture is Trending
The Iroquois Urban Farm Project is part of a bigger trend that is growing across the nation and which has taken firm root in Louisville—urban agriculture.
Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor to Louisville Forward, explains one potential reason.
“As we become faster paced as a society and as we have less and less time to do things like cook or shop for food, one of the ways that people are responding to that trend is to intentionally slow their lives down,” she explains. “Growing food is a way to slow your life down and reconnect with things that are important like community and family and knowing where your food comes from and how it was produced.
“That’s definitely a trend in society that we are seeing manifest itself here in Louisville,” Zawacki continues.
While many cities grapple with agriculture’s creep into their borders, Zawacki says that Metro Louisville’s government has embraced the concept and utilized it as a solution to some of the city’s biggest issues.
“Louisville has a lot of the same problems that every other big and small city in the country is facing—related to vacant property, related to the need for more economic opportunity for its citizens and really related to the need to create community green space,” she says. “Urban agriculture solves a lot of those problems for us, albeit at a smaller scale.”
It also puts the decision making process about what happens in neighborhoods with neighborhood residents, so it’s an empowerment tool. “When we think about urban agriculture from that perspective,” Zawacki continues, “we open up a bigger world of possibilities for how people think that their neighborhoods ought to function and feel. We also create opportunities for ownership, not just of land, but in a bigger sense of ownership, ownership of place and ownership of community.”
Magnuson’s group, Louisville Grows, has sprung out of this movement and is fostering the trend in Louisville.
“We’re really focused on urban agriculture because we think that it makes a lot of sense,” she says. “There’s a lot of conversation about food access, and we believe that the best and easiest way to access fresh and healthy food is to grow it yourself. So, we’ve been providing educational programing for the past five years and trying to encourage more people to grow by removing barriers.”
Louisville Grows, which is headquartered in the Portland neighborhood and manages 16 acres of urban agriculture in Louisville, focuses some of their efforts specifically on lower income communities and food deserts such as Hazelwood.
“We think we need to get the word out and create a movement for the purpose of making our neighborhoods more resilient and increasing food security especially in neighborhoods that do not have enough grocery stores to serve the population and that are USDA-designated food deserts,” Magnuson says.
“We really need more gardens, more healthy food and more people learning about the benefits of urban agriculture.”