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Harvesting Change | Making Local Food Connections in the Heartland   Nurturing a Sustainable Food Chain

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Above image credit: To lower input costs, Star lets most of her plants "go to seed" at the end of their season so she can harvest the seeds and plant them next year. (Cami Koons | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Star Nealy loves fresh tomatoes.  

It’s why she and her husband first started gardening in 2009.  

Now, they own a 1.5-acre farm in the Vineyard neighborhood where they grow more than 30,000 pounds of fresh produce to give to their community at no cost. 

When the Nealy’s first took control of the land on Cypress Avenue, now the Global One Urban Farming site, it was a dumping ground.  

D. Rashaan Gilmore, host of the Flatland television show on Kansas City PBS.

Tonight on Kansas City PBS

“Flatland in Focus” host D. Rashaan Gilmore examines how to develop more sustainable local food systems tonight at 7 p.m. on Kansas City PBS.

“We found 82 tires,” Nealy said. “There was nothing here.”  

Nealy pointed out different crops and projects around her farm and periodically fielded questions from eager volunteers and apprentices working around the farm. 

Still early in the growing season, the team had already harvested a huge plot of green beans, and shared them with the surrounding community, which Nealy said is classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a food desert.  

This is why Nealy’s farm also serves as a local distribution hub for her East Side community. Each week they pick up thousands of pounds of donated produce from Loffredo’s Fresh Foods, Kanbe’s Markets and After the Harvest, to give away to veterans, seniors and low-income families. 

“We just share food in the community,” Nealy said. 

Nealy’s story is an example of sustainability, and of Kansas City’s increasingly interconnected local food system. 

Flatland in Focus

Creating a Local Food Plan  

Late last year, KC Healthy Kids, in collaboration with Cultivate KC, Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), New Growth and a slew of community stakeholders, produced a regional food system action plan.  

The action plan calls for the partners to “connect local food producers and consumers, expand existing markets and improve community food security.” 

Andrea Clark, the director of food system planning at KC Healthy Kids, said community relationships, resources and infrastructure are vital to local producers and farmers.  

“Coming together to develop these resources and infrastructure that benefits everyone is really important,” she said.  

In 2010, Kansas City was at the forefront of the local food movement when it implemented an urban agriculture ordinance. The ordinance drastically simplified the process for urban farms to take root throughout the city.  

“That ordinance was a good first step,” Clark said, while noting areas where the ordinance could be updated to allow urban farms more flexibility. “We would really like to see farm businesses supported like any other small business in Kansas City, and to help get rid of a lot of the policy barriers.” 

The action plan advocates for both consumers and producers.  

A couple of key points: 

  • Call for increased access to land and improved agricultural zoning regulations for producers. 
  • Support middle of the chain infrastructure, through distribution systems like the Kansas City Food Hub and expanded access to food preparation and storage.  
  • Make careers in the food system accessible and adequately compensated.  

Emma Shankland, a colleague of Clark’s, is the director for the Greater KC Food Policy Coalition. Shankland said with the rich agricultural heritage of both Kansas and Missouri, it’s vital to move forward in a way that incorporates and supports farmers who work diligently to provide for their communities.  

“We really need to intentionally work to educate both the community and stakeholders, lawmakers, and other folks about what a rich opportunity we have for local agriculture,” Shankland said. “And how we can really help provide for our community.” 

A woman walks next to a row of blackberry bushes
Star Nealy plucks a blackberry off of the bush and notes that the ones in her garden taste much better than the berries that have sat on a shelf. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Education has been a pillar of Nealy’s business for many years.  

Before starting the farm, the Nealys taught kindergartners through highschoolers how to grow food at African Centered College Preparatory Academy and other area schools  

They still do a lot of teaching, only now, from their own farm.  

“You have to meet people where they’re at and give them the knowledge that they need,” Nealy said.  

Global One not only teaches how to grow, but about the importance and value of fresh, healthy foods. 

She spoke with pride about neighbors who now grow food in their yards, instead of just grass, because of the influence she has had on them.  

Nealy is part of Kansas City Black Urban Growers (KCBUGs), which is similarly passionate about agriculture and fresh food education.  

Dina Newman, the founder and CEO of KC BUGs, said her group focusses on the people who are doing the work and facing the challenges. 

“We are looking at people who grow food—and that may look like people who grow food in a pot on a porch, to people who grow on acres,” Newman said.  

She started food system work in 2011, when she helped the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council establish a small growing area on one of the empty lots owned by the neighborhood.  

“Everyone’s kind of doing that now, but at the time, it was cutting edge,” Newman said.  

That small lot turned into other urban growing areas, the Ivanhoe Farmers Market (which is still thriving) and eventually, KC BUGs.  

“Go back to 2011—there weren’t a lot of black faces in this space,” Newman said. “We all just started meeting and commiserating to make this change.” 

Source: Envisioning a Collaborative Kansas City Foodshed: Assessment Report | KC Healthy Kids 

Now, a registered nonprofit, KC BUGs helps Black farmers with microgrants, training, and farmer-to-farmer community. 

According to USDA Census data, the number of producers of color nationwide decreased from 2017 to 2022. The population of Black producers decreased by more than 8% during the same period, making overall farmer demographics almost 95% white.  

A lack of diversity also persists in Kansas City’s local food system.  

An assessment report that informed the regional food system action plan found that many food system organizations lacked representation from key BIPOC groups. 

Equity and better representation of BIPOC producers and consumers in the food system was identified as a key value throughout the food system action plan. 

“I want to see an equitable food system,” Newman said of her hopes for Kansas City in the coming years. “I want to see more Black and brown folks at the table.” 

Nealy spent the first part of her life working in construction. The hours were long, and she felt unappreciated. Repeatedly, she saw older folks retire and then come back, because they didn’t have anything to fall back on.  

a man in a red hat, yellow shirt and red shorts holds up a garden hose and stands in front of a bed of garlic plants, next to a woman in a white shirt and black pants who holds up a garden hoe. Both of their shirts read "Global One urban farming"
Star and Anthony Nealy grow and distribute fresh food at no cost to their community. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

“So, I decided to try to do something right here in the community to show people that we have talent,” Nealy said. “We are smart. We can do things. We just have to believe in ourselves and have to see it happen.” 

“I’m looking at this place (and) it’s not there yet because I don’t get a salary, but what I do get is progress.” 

Sustainable on Two Fronts  

Mary Hendrickson is a rural sociologist and associate professor at the University of Missouri who researches food systems and the impacts of consolidation.  

For Hendrickson, sustainability carries a double meaning in the food system.  

By one definition, it’s about the longevity of farmers and farm workers. A sustainable system would allow them to serve their local community and earn a good livelihood, while providing everyone access to good, healthy food. 

“That means: do all communities have the ability to make sure all the residents have good foods,” Hendrickson said.  

The other definition of sustainability relates to ecology and the relationship between food production and soil loss, water quality and carbon emissions.  

“All of these things are holistic,” Hendrickson said. “And you don’t change overnight. You build spaces and build alternatives and think critically about how we’ve organized food.” 

But smaller-scale producers who serve a localized system don’t always have the same level of support as commercial farmers. They face higher risks to try new systems. 

“Now, that said, there has been quite a quite a bit more investment — it pales in comparison to like that the crop insurance subsidies — but there has been investment in the local food market,” Hendrickson said.  

But industrial agriculture helps feed the world, right?  

Hendrickson disagrees.  

“Why do we have hungry people at the same time we’re producing way more calories than a healthy person needs to consume per day?” Hendrickson asked.  

By the books, the U.S. produces close to 4,000 calories per person, per day. Yet, nationwide, 13.5% of people are food insecure, and those rates are on the rise locally.  

“These industrial scales do not feed the world,” Hendrickson said. “It’s a narrative to make some people feel good, but it is not a real narrative.”  

It comes down to distribution issues. If the food produced is not accessible, affordable or nutritious, it’s not reaching the people who need it.  

“The very big players keep getting bigger (and) the issue is that … it’s driven only by a focus on the bottom line,” Hendrickson said. 

There is not a singular, magic solution to this problem.  

It’s going to require changes in farming practices, support for urban agriculture and a reworking of local, regional and global food systems.  

“It’s not just about lower prices for consumers,” Hendrickson said. “It’s about what can we do to provide for farmer livelihoods, for worker livelihoods, for resilient businesses, for making sure everybody’s fed.” 

Taking Action 

Throughout the Harvesting Change series, Flatland has asked sources what consumers need to do, and the responses have varied.  

Advice ranged from voting with the consumer dollar and buying local to asking questions about food, talking to farmers, calling elected officials and planting a garden. 

Matt Riggs, the outreach coordinator for solid waste management at MARC and Kansas City Food Wise, encourages folks to follow the “abc’s of food waste reduction” and think about food from when it’s bought to how it’s stored, cooked, shared and eventually, disposed.  

“I really encourage people to develop informed viewpoints about the food system, and about the food that they’re eating,” Hendrickson said. “It builds our capacity then to act collaboratively together, and in a way that can maybe address the issues across the food system.” 

Cody Boston is a multimedia producer for Kansas City PBS and the producer of “Flatland in Focus.” Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Julie Freijat and Nicole Dolan contributed to this reporting.

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