Fort Wayne's First Urban Farm Brings Fresh Produce To Food Desert

Nov 4, 2015

There are parts of Fort Wayne where residents don’t have access to fresh, affordable food. These areas are known as food deserts and can be found around urban parts of the country.

In this segment of NorthEATS Indiana, the city is trying to combat food deserts by investing in Fort Wayne’s first urban farm.

Forty years ago, Ephraim Smiley started a garden in his backyard because money was tight after he and his wife started having kids.

“I found myself broke on the weekends, so I thought, I need a hobby,” Smiley said. “I started hauling manure. That was my hobby.”

Now, Smiley has gardens all over Fort Wayne, and has played an instrumental role in starting the city’s first urban farm, which was dedicated last week.

The Renaissance Pointe Urban Farm is located on Winter Street, in an area considered a food desert. The farm and its commercial kitchen, which is built in a rehabilitated fire house, was created with a grant of about $430,000 from the city. The land is being leased to the private group Growing Minds. The organization tutors and mentors students, but it didn’t originally intend to have gardening in the curriculum.

Smiley is employed by Growing Minds to educate kids about gardening and healthy eating. Carlos Brooks, a co-founder of Growing Minds, started the organization to provide students with tutoring and social skill development. He says a few years ago he started incorporating farming into the curriculum, and realized the kids loved it.

Farming not only produces healthy food, it is a form of exercise as well. Smiley combines agriculture and exercise into what he calls "agricize." It can be a workout to use this manual tiller made from a bike.
Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

Gardening is especially important for the kids who don’t eat healthy foods. Many of the groups Brooks brings to the urban farm are from the Allen County Juvenile Center or are brought to him through the Department of Child Services.

“I have a lot of kids eating Ramen noodles and hot Cheetos, and I don’t think they’re exposed to some of the healthier foods, and they don’t know what they don’t like, so if you can have them over here playing in it, tasting things and then we’ll eventually get to cooking stuff, we’re really planting that seed and changing that behavior as they get older,” Brooks said.

Brooks says it’s great having Smiley educate the kids about gardening and healthy foods because Smiley is knowledgeable about both farming and the community.

“When you’re taking on the task of rebuilding the community, you need to do that from within,” he said. “So to have somebody that’s been a part of this neighborhood and this community for so long, and having these relationships already established, it just makes things a lot easier.”

The urban farm is just one of many projects in the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood, and so far 6 million dollars in public funding has been invested in the area. Heather Presley-Cowen, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services department, says that leads to more private investment, which she estimates is about $50-60 million in the neighborhood so far.

“There’s a whole higher level, probably 30,000 feet up off the ground, initiative that really needs to go on that looks at this as what it is,” Presley-Cowen said. “It’s, what, a billion dollar industry in Indiana, if we just capture a small percentage of that, I wonder what could happen.”

She says the urban farm makes the community healthier not just physically, but also aesthetically. According to Presley-Cowen, urban farms can increase property values. Residents remodel their homes and businesses improve their buildings when an urban farm is introduced.

There’s a difference between an urban farm and a community garden. While a community garden is usually public, an urban farm is owned by a private group, in this case Growing Minds. The group plans to sell its produce, which requires the kitchen in the former fire house to be a commercial kitchen.

Jack Close, the property manager for the project, says the commercial kitchen requirements are different than a residential kitchen. It includes a different sink, fire safety precautions and a chemical dishwasher that can do a load of dishes every minute and fifteen seconds.

“There’s plenty of room to get other people behind the cabinets also for a full learning experience,” Brooks said.

That’s the idea. The urban farm will not only provide fresh produce in a food desert, it will also be a learning experience for those eating the food and the kids learning to garden, and Ephraim Smiley is ready to teach.

“We took some of the mystery out of gardening. So that’s what I like to do. I like to take the mystery out of gardening.”

He spent two months planting the fall garden, filled with kale and leafy greens, and now he’s ready for people to start eating.