SOUP $400K grant to improve urban agriculture access

While historically considered a “rural” practice, agriculture is strengthening its roots in urban areas across the nation in response to food insecurities and the growing desire to cultivate fresh produce.

By definition, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around urban areas – including Springfield. And thanks to a 4-year, $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the non-profit organization – Springfield Ohio Urban Plantfolk (SOUP) – is able to expand its urban agriculture services in communities on the southside of Springfield.

With the USDA grant awarded in the fourth quarter of 2020, SOUP has been able to purchase 7.5 acres on McCain Avenue now known as Melrose Acres. The small urban farm will serve as an agriculture and education center.

“SOUP’s focus is food security for South Springfield,” says Sherry Chen, founder and coordinator of SOUP. “Our education programs will be open to anyone and deal with urban agriculture issues broadly. It’s a value to anyone interested in urban ag gardening.”

SOUP is a community based, urban agriculture approach to food security for residents of the southside of Springfield. It includes garden and food education components for adults and children, gardening setup and assistance, farm stands, cooking classes and more. 

Chen says the organization’s target efforts are aimed at those who are living in food insecure areas but has expanded from supporting school gardens and school garden clubs, into a broader community effort.

With the closing of Kroger on South Limestone Street and the outbreak of COVID-19 occurring within the same month (March 2020), Chen says, “That really hyper-focused us. Our response was twofold: to write the USDA grant which is allowing us to expand and to increase our Porch Garden Project.”

Chen says most grants do not allow for the purchase of property, and SOUP had to work hard to justify why they wanted to purchase the land.

“We were aware (Melrose Acres) was an ideal site for urban agriculture,” Chen says. “It has not had prior construction on it, and it also has clean soil. That’s hard to find in Springfield. You can’t effectively garden – unless you use raised beds – on prior residential or construction sites.”

Last year in response to the Kroger closing and the COVID-19 pandemic, SOUP planted 400 grow-bags as part of the Porch Garden Project. The grow-bags were given to residents of South Springfield. This year, under the USDA grant and with support from the Creating Healthy Communities grant from the Clark County Combined Health District, SOUP plans to distribute 500 grow-bags.

“When we lift up people, we lift everyone,” Chen says. “Springfield is a community that is struggling with poverty, and yet it is a nice place to be. This is an opportunity to lift up the whole city.”

SOUP hosts two seasonal farm stands in the South Springfield, and with the USDA grant funds, plans to open a third.

In addition, within the 4-year grant period SOUP plans to double the size of the garden at Melrose Acres, plant fruit trees and berry brambles, and eventually house chickens.

“Overall, we will increase food production, food education and nutrition, food systems, urban agriculture practices and principles, and increase food access,” Chen says.

Chen says when she is in the Springfield communities served by SOUP, it is beautiful.

“You have to be willing to engage, open your eyes and look for it,” she says. “There is beauty on our Southside, and we need to let it emerge. This is just another way to empower people so the beauty there can emerge.”

Chen says she has been functioning in the small organic farming world for about 20 years. “Boots in the dirt” beside her include those of Debbie Mines and Joyce Watkins. As the organization continues to expand, Chen says they hope to include additional volunteers.

SOUP also partners with Central State University Extension and the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions to bring urban agriculture advancement and solutions to Springfield.

“Community Solutions and Agraria have worked with SOUP on food security issues for several years,” says Susan Jennings, Executive Director of Community Solutions/Agraria. “The Melrose Acres project will enable neighbors and friends to begin to address the many food security issues of South Springfield through community growing and education. We are delighted to be partners in the USDA grant, which enables us to provide educational and administrative support to the SOUP team.”

The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions seeks to educate people around the world about ways to make their communities more resilient, vital, and capable of withstanding dramatic shifts due to climate and economic disruptions. Located in Yellow Springs, Agraria is a regenerative farming project of Community Solutions and is Ohio’s first Center for Regenerative Agriculture.

“SOUP offers people an opportunity for better health if they choose to take it,” Chen says. “It’s offering people what we all want: community, health, friendship.”

Read more articles by Darci Jordan.

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