Downtown farmers dig deep 

Matthew Jose surveys rows of mulch on the northwest corner of Michigan and Oriental streets. A few years ago this site was just a parking lot, but that concrete past is now buried under six inches of topsoil.

"In the near future we're going to have to grow our own food in an urban environment because food prices are going up. But right now, we don't have the tools or training to do it," Jose says.

To address the problem of rising food costs and a public consciousness far removed from food production, Jose began planting the seeds of a community garden last year. He'd noticed there were many community development projects going on in the near Eastside neighborhood, but there was nothing to address people's everyday needs, what he calls the "daily living things."

Jose was concerned that the only full service grocery store in the area had closed two years prior, and that people in the neighborhood didn't have access to high quality, locally grown produce.

Now, standing in this garden, Jose waves his hand in the direction of a row of houses across the street. "All this could be used to grow food," he says, referring to the lawns. "And that could be quite substantial for the folks in those homes."

An acre of land

As the urban garden program assistant at Purdue, Jose spearheaded the Urban Farm Project last year. The project was funded by a grant from the Efroymson Family Fund and M&I Bank. With the money, he hired two students from Arsenal Tech High School as apprentice farmers to help tend to the garden, which yielded lettuce, green beans, tomatoes and other vegetables that were donated to a local food pantry.

But this year Jose has left his post at Purdue to start his own company, Big City Farms. And he's become the sole caretaker for eight gardens scattered on empty lots throughout the near Eastside. Together, he estimates the lots comprise about an acre of land.

Although Jose won't have students helping him this year, he has enlisted the aid of his friends, Tyler Henderson and his wife, Laura, who is the founder and market master at the Indianapolis Winter Market. The Hendersons live next door to Jose's garden at Michigan and Oriental and grow their own produce. Despite the cold weather, they have a backyard full of winter greens that are flourishing under cold frames.

Tyler Henderson is supplying Jose's project with rain barrels, which will provide irrigation for the gardens, while his wife is assisting with grant proposals and educational programs that will help spread the word about Jose's work.

Jose doesn't have any grant money this year and will be relying on the sales of vegetables for his income. His produce will be offered for sale to members of a Community Supported Agriculture group, who will pay a flat fee of $650 in exchange for a bushel of fresh food every week for 22 weeks, from June until October. The extra produce will be donated to local shelters and social services.

With earrings and a fitted army-green jacket, Jose hardly looks like the type to eke out a living off the land, but when he talks about the project, his dedication is clear.

"The thing I like about this project is it touches on a lot of cultural and socio economic issues that need to be addressed. Why do we have all these empty lots where we could grow food, yet people go hungry? Why aren't food stores being opened in certain areas? And why are there no sustainable jobs for high school students?" he asks.

The Urban Earth Project

Jose hopes that his gardens can solve some of these problems. But his first challenge will be to make the venture successful so that he is able to sustain it. After that, there are plans for something he and the Hendersons have dubbed "The Urban Earth Project," a primary component of which will be a program to train youth how to garden.

According to Jose, the skills students would learn in such a program would enable them to become small business owners, providing quality produce to areas that need it, while making a sustainable living at the same time.

"There are plenty of vacant lots on the near Eastside; why not start an urban farm training program?" Jose asks.

This summer will test Jose's project as he aims to provide 25 families who will buy shares in the CSA with bushels of vegetables each week. He also plans to supply Goose the Market and Café Patachou with produce from his garden.

In the coming weeks, Jose will begin seeding, but for now he's working to spread the word about the benefits of growing produce in an urban setting, and trying to get others to join his vision. On Feb. 27, he and the Hendersons guided fourth grade students from the Center for Inquiry around his gardens and had them help make mulch beds.

And he and Laura have just written a grant proposal to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in hopes of creating a school garden on the near Westside at the Key Learning Community.

"The biggest thing is showing this to people on a scale that they will take it seriously," he says. "I need to demonstrate that you can earn a living growing vegetables on vacant lots."

The Hendersons' rain barrels

Tyler and Laura Henderson's rain barrels will provide irrigation for Jose's project, but the contraptions are also being used around the city by citizens concerned about polluted runoff and water conservation. In the summer, lawn and garden watering can comprise up to 40 percent of household water use. By using a rain barrel, rainwater is collected when it is plentiful and used during times of drought.

Like many cities, Indianapolis' sewer infrastructure was built more than 100 years ago, and when there is heavy rain, the sewers overflow into local rivers and streams. State officials are attempting to address this problem with $122 million in federal stimulus money that is earmarked for upgrading Indiana's aged sewer systems.

However, in Indianapolis alone, more than $1 billion worth of sewer upgrades are required. For now, capturing runoff in rain barrels is a practical way to take some of this pressure off the beleaguered sewer system.

To do his part to keep Indianapolis' waterways clean, Tyler Henderson built two rain barrels out of reused food barrels last year, and used the water for his personal garden. He also built two as a wedding gift for friends. After that, more people began asking him about the rain barrels, and it blossomed into a cottage industry. By the end of the year, the Hendersons had made 225 barrels, and now offer workshops to teach others how to make their own.

This year, Henderson lent his expertise to Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, which developed a rain barrel design of their own. KIB is now offering workshops where volunteers can build their own rain barrels and take them home for $45, which is the cost of the materials.

The remaining rain barrels will be sold for $139 each. For each rain barrel sold, KIB will be able to plant another tree for their NeighborWoods project.

So far, the response has been overwhelming, according to Linda Broadfoot, vice president of development and public relations for KIB. The next rain barrel workshop is March 21, but it is already full. KIB is currently taking names of people interested in the summer workshop, scheduled for July 25.

"There's a demand out there as evidenced with the popularity of the workshops," Broadfoot says. "People understand our water system needs help."

Creating Options

Julie Rhodes has lived in the near Eastside Cottage Home neighborhood for 17 years, and her husband Kyle Hendrix has lived there ever since their marriage five and a half years ago. However, becoming parents to Ansel, now 4 and a half, made urban living a lot more challenging.

"We thought, 'Now we know why people move to the suburbs!'" Rhodes says. "We asked ourselves, 'Can we stay in Cottage Home, and if we stay, what do we need?'" Their answers were a community playground, a shared green space and a healthy grocery option.

Instead of seeing barriers, Rhodes and Hendrix decided to be their own solution and set to work developing the first two ideas with the help of their neighborhood association. Now, the playground is finished, the community space is in progress and the couple has set their sights on a larger challenge: bringing healthy, local food to the near Eastside. Their plan: a food co-op with a non-profit, storefront grocery.

According to Hendrix, 40,000 residents of the near Eastside currently live without access to a local full-service grocery store. Since many people in the neighborhood don't have cars, residents frequently turn to convenience stores, where they pay premium prices for processed foods.

The situation is even more complicated for those who insist on organic or local foods. Rhodes and Hendrix, both vegetarians and environmentalists, drive across town to shop at places like Whole Foods on the Northside. "For a couple who tries to walk or bike everywhere, there are no options," Rhodes explains.

They weren't the only ones feeling frustrated.

"I was having these great conversations with multiple groups," Hendrix recalls. "One person had recently been to a co-op in Bloomington and thought of it as a great economic development opportunity for economically depressed areas. Another person wanted to bring a grocery store to the near Eastside as all the major chains had left the area. And then there was the group tired of going up north for shopping, as there is no real alternative for daily natural, local, organic items in the downtown area. So, I'm talking to all these people and said, 'All right, I think we have the critical mass here to do something for all of these groups.' That's when we met at the Abbey Coffeehouse."

This brainstorming session, in June 2007, led to the birth of the Indy Food Co-op.

The IFC's goals touch on more than just providing organic food. They want to provide a one-stop shopping experience open to both members and the community; they want their storefront to be friendly to pedestrians and public transportation, and they want their building to be green.

Unlike a food-buying co-op, this non-profit is not exclusive. Members will receive benefits such as special discounts on food and events, and the opportunity to buy bulk through the co-op. However, since anyone can shop at the store, the member fee is an investment in the idea more than the products.

So far over 150 people have joined, knowing they wouldn't see any physical product of the co-op for six to nine months. Rhodes explains, "It shows that there's a captive group of people that really want to make this happen."

Membership costs $175 per two-adult family, and the IFC reached its goal of the "Founding 150" membership in early February. In order to support the store, they will need about 350 more members and approximately 1,000 non-member shoppers.

Straying from the traditional food co-op model, the IFC will not require any volunteer service from its members. They plan to employ a professional general manager and staff to run the store, called Fall Harvest, which they hope to open in fall 2009.

According to their Web site, the store hopes to provide one-stop shopping with "local, fresh produce, meats, dairy, bulk items, prepared food items, health and beauty products, pet products, paper goods" and more. Rhodes and Hendrix believe this offering will complement, not compete with, the local farmers markets.

The IFC board would use the contacts they have made at local farmers markets to find many of their suppliers. They believe the store will give farmers an additional place to sell their food during the week. "There is quite an infrastructure out there," Hendrix says about potential suppliers. He thinks Central Indiana farmers have an interest in supporting the project and would be flexible to the co-op's needs. Hendrix adds, "They just want to know what we need and when we need it."

The IFC will differentiate itself from a farmers market with conventional business hours and the one-stop shopping philosophy. "At the farmers market, you can't get the rice and pasta and other things you need to go with the fresh items," Rhodes says.

Convenience is key. Hendrix believes the near Eastside is an ideal location because it is close enough to downtown, but also accessible to neighborhood shoppers without a car. The IFC hopes to find a location along the East 10th Street corridor, close to a public bus stop and the Monon Trail, making it more convenient for pedestrians.

Another eco-friendly element will be the store building, making use of Hendrix's experience working on the redevelopment of contaminated properties for the state's Department of Environmental Management. It costs more to clean up this tainted land than to build on it, so businesses usually won't invest in these "brownfield" sites and the spaces often sit unoccupied. Hendrix plans to use his experience to find an underutilized space for the IFC store and refurbish it in a sustainable manner. The IFC would look to brownfield grants to support this goal.

Local food movement grows

This convergence of resources and earth-friendly initiatives reflects the unprecedented level of cooperation currently happening in the local food community. The IFC has provided a forum for advocates to network, and other projects have developed out of and alongside the IFC's near Eastside efforts.

Rhodes and Hendrix's neighbor Laura Henderson (see related story) was initially part of the IFC's steering committee, but decided to branch off and start the Indy Winter Farmer's Market, which provides farmers and local food advocates options during the off-season, an important winter resource for those awaiting the IFC store.

Another advocate in the neighborhood is Matthew Jose (see related story), who farms two urban plots down the street from Rhodes and Hendrix's home. Although Jose's farming has developed separately from the IFC, his project has a similar mission, providing community development alongside healthy food. Jose's near Eastside crops provide an example of just how local the IFC's products could eventually be.

The near Eastside may be the heart of the project, but the IFC is also a contributor to citywide discussions of food security. On March 5, Earth Charter Indiana and Slow Food Indianapolis convened a Food Security Summit, which brought together a group as diverse as farmers, local food distributors, organic chefs, non-profit professionals, artists, students and those simply interested in learning more about urban gardening.

The group discussed the need for a working model of convenient, accessible local food distribution. Alyssa Worden of This Old Farm in Darlington articulated the general consensus that the IFC might be that "poster child." Worden said, "It's only one piece of this larger picture, but it could be a springboard for other projects."

The IFC's storefront is also a piece of the larger picture for the near Eastside, as one of many development projects currently being pursued. Projects like the IFC will fit into a multi-year vision for the area, which includes action on recommendations from a Greater Indy Neighborhoods Initiative plan and upcoming development tied to the Super Bowl Legacy Project.

"The Indy Food Co-op has an opportunity to use that spotlight to further our mission and efforts that will leave a legacy for the near Eastside long after Super Bowl 2012 is over," Rhodes says.

An important consideration of all these projects is redeveloping the East 10th Street and Washington Street corridors without displacing the current residents of the neighborhood. "The goal is not gentrification," Rhodes says.

Reaching out to all members of the near Eastside community is a unique challenge for the IFC. The near Eastside is not the typical neighborhood for food co-ops, which are traditionally stereotyped as hippie college town endeavors. Although the IFC board has looked to regional models such as Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, they recognize the uniqueness of their "true inner-city audience," Rhodes says. While drawing ideas from other models, the IFC "will look like what it needs to look like here."

On the near Eastside, the IFC believes this means reaching out to all neighbors, regardless of economic or cultural differences. To welcome the neighborhood's Latino population, the IFC is in the process of translating their marketing materials into Spanish. Cost is another concern. "We don't think healthy eating is only for the upper/middle class," Rhodes says.

To help ease higher costs of organic and local foods for low-income shoppers, the IFC plans to accept food stamps and create scholarship programs to underwrite memberships.

To justify the extra expense to consumers on a budget, the IFC will offer educational programming explaining long-term health and economic advantages of local and organic products. The first of these events was a Feb. 27 screening of the documentary Heart and Soil, which celebrates local farmers, followed by a panel discussion of relevant local players.

The board hopes that educational and social events such as this will be frequent offerings from the IFC. Once the store is open, they also hope to hold cooking classes to share suggestions for using unfamiliar products or to highlight in-season foods.

Rhodes believes that the store will be a place that fosters community. "There is nothing better than going to a grocery store and seeing people you know," she says, describing her vision of friends and neighbors greeting each other and catching up at the store. "No one will be walking around alone with headphones on listening to their iPod!" Rhodes jokes.

A future addition she would like to see is a small coffee shop or deli area where people can meet in the store. Large-scale IFC events could also take place in the store's parking lot during nice weather. Like the successful John H. Boner Community Center leading the way in near Eastside development, Rhodes envisions a place buzzing with neighborhood activity.

Although the near Eastside might not be the easiest place to start up a food co-op, Rhodes says, "The benefit of community development makes it worth going through the extra challenge of locating in this neighborhood."

While the IFC is sure to draw interest and members from all over Indy, this project cannot be separated from the neighborhood and the people that inspired it. Rhodes and Hendrix have seen their playground, green space and now the food co-op come to life, leaving us wondering what they'll dream up for the neighborhood next.

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