On Saturday, February 3, Kroger closed two Memphis stores — one serving Orange Mound and the second on South Third Street.
In the weeks since the company’s abrupt announcement, the business move has sparked outrage and concern over food deserts, spawning a grassroots movement.
The movement is rooted in a basic human need — knowing where your next meal is coming from. In neighborhoods starved for healthy food options, the concern is real enough to bring people together to see how they can exercise their economic and political muscle to make sure there’s food to put on the table.
I went to such a meeting in South Memphis on January 26. It was organized by City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., one of the first elected officials to call out Kroger for seeming to abandon these lower-income neighborhoods. About 50 people attended this meeting to vent, to get updates and to brainstorm on what to do next.
Related: "Orange Mound residents protest their closing grocery store"
Shortly after Kroger announced the closings, some activists wanted to negotiate a later date for the closings to give residents time to find other grocery options. Ford was not among them, joking: “I ain’t Keith Sweat. I ain’t beggin’.”
In fact, Ford has repeatedly hinted that multiple chains are interested in moving into the soon-to-be vacant storefronts, including one that wants to offer a home to Tri-State Bank of Memphis, which must close its Lamar Avenue branch.
Not surprisingly, the idea of boycotting Kroger came up; several, including Ford, said they hadn’t shopped at any Kroger since the announcement. Some talked about getting a farmer’s market to move into the plaza.
And while talk of Kroger’s departure leaving a “food desert” may be overblown — both Save-A-Lot and Aldi have nearby stores — many complained about how far they’d have to travel to get quality food.
The meeting got spirited — people will get that way when their food supply is threatened. But what caught my attention was what didn’t come up — a solution that’s so obvious that I couldn’t understand how many people could seem oblivious to it.
Because if it’s convenient access to quality food you want — at an affordable price — it doesn’t get any cheaper, better-tasting, healthful and convenient than growing your own food.
Look, I’ve got nothing against mobilizing economic and political muscle. But too often, that also means waiting on “the powers that be” — whether that’s government, bureaucrats or a Fortune 500 company — to come to the rescue. Good luck with that.
Related: "Urban forest II: Growing a green giant in South Memphis"
But guess what? It doesn’t take an act of the corporate gods to put a seed in the ground. The city council doesn’t have to vote to allow those seeds to grow. All it takes is light, the proper climate and some fertile soil. And if enough people have the commitment, patience and the know-how, we can create an abundance of food.
And we can start right now.
That’s what we’re working toward at Abundant Earth Global CDC, co-founded by yours truly and my fiancée, Ester Moore. One day, as we were driving around Memphis, we couldn’t help but notice how many vacant lots there were in these so-called “blighted” neighborhoods.
With so many of those grassy lots available for just a few hundred dollars via tax sale, we saw not decay, but opportunity. What if we could acquire several lots and make them productive again? And what if enough people joined in?
Right now, Abundant Earth is preparing for the spring growing season on three lots in Frayser and North Memphis. Part of our goal is certainly to grow produce for donation and for sale to fund our initiatives. But a bigger part is to show that it can be done — that “urban farmer” is a viable career path for those who live in so-called “blighted” and “troubled” neighborhoods.
Urban farming isn’t a silver bullet in the war on poverty. But it does check off a number of boxes. It makes “blighted” property productive again. It’s inexpensive, especially when you realize how much food one $1.49 pack of seeds can produce. It can jumpstart a micro-economy in lower-income neighborhoods — especially when a group of urban farmers either sell to each other and/or to the general public.
And it can transform a child’s relationship with food. One of our allies, Adam Guerrero of SmartMule, has spent years teaching kids in North Memphis about agriculture and how to grow food in their neighborhoods.
Miles Tamboli and young Memphians work in the Girls Inc. Youth Farm in Frayser.
And in Frayser, Girls, Inc. of Memphis is teaching young women not just how to grow produce at their Youth Farm, but also how to thrive in business. You might be surprised how quickly a child will put down a video game to go outside and get their hands dirty.
The irony is that some people just can’t imagine themselves doing it. You may be one of them. Why is that ironic? Because they’ll work 40 hours on a job, cash their check and go to a grocery store to put food on the table. With urban farming, you don’t cash a check to put food on the table; you go outside and harvest that produce to put food on the table.
For a family, here’s what’s possible: Healthier parents and healthier children. A lower food bill. Extra income from selling your produce. Extra goodwill from sharing produce with your church. And quality time — either with family members who chip in to help, or time alone in the garden with God. Indeed, I’ve come to cherish mornings in my garden for that very reason.
But can you imagine if a city block, a neighborhood or a community mobilized around urban farming? I can.
I see food growing in yards and lots all over Memphis. I see children actually understanding where their food comes from. I see “agripreneurs” — Memphians building businesses around a new age of food abundance. I see a sense of community — people from all walks of life working together to feed the poorest among us. I see a food forest, not a food desert.
Let’s keep applying pressure to the powers that be to make sure quality grocers are in our neighborhoods, and that government is working to meet the needs of our poor.
But while we’re waiting, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s time to dig in, sow seeds and grow our way out of poverty.
And if you’ve got a patch of land and some seed, you’ve got everything you need.
Lee Eric Smith is an NNPA award-winning columnist for The New Tri-State Defender. He is also the author of “A Message From God,” an online eBook project with more than 1.3 million Facebook followers. For more information about Abundant Earth Global CDC visit abundantearthglobalcdc.org.
URBAN FARMING ORGANIZATIONS
Abundant Earth Global CDC: www.abundantearthglobalcdc.org
Memphis Tilth: https://www.memphistilth.org/
Girls Inc. Youth Farm 1179 Dellwood Ave · (901) 523-0217 http://www.girlsincmemphis.org/our-programs/youth-farm
Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, Inc. Phone: (901) 522-854