Fitting squash, scallions, beans and beets in a 2-foot cardboard box is no trouble. But adding in an outsize head of napa cabbage? That’s where the system starts to break down.
Jen Loui of Seeds of Hope farm arranges and rearranges the produce to accommodate the cabbage’s crinkly leaves, but they are just too prolific. Jake Smith, the farm manager, tells the small assembly line of volunteers that the cabbage will have to be bagged separately.
Smith oversees the community-supported agriculture farm behind St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Spanish Lake. Throughout the growing season, two to three dozen different crops will be harvested from the three-quarters-acre lot donated by the church.
Seeds of Hope takes a unique approach to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which typically involves customers purchasing a subscription for a regular yield of a farm’s offerings.
Each Seeds of Hope farm box has a market price of about $20; sponsors pay $28 to subsidize shares for low-income members. For members with incomes at less than 125% of the federal poverty level — about $32,000 a year for a family of four — an income-tiered share costs $12. The Double Up Food Bucks program for food stamp recipients can bring that down to $10.
The farm is one of 22 projects under the umbrella of the Community Action Agency of St. Louis County, a federally funded organization focused on ending poverty. It started in 2012 as a way to “increase physical accessibility and economic access to fresh food,” said Randy Tempel, the community garden coordinator.
In Spanish Lake, 19% of residents fall below the poverty line, though CSA members who buy subsidized farm shares can be from any part of St. Louis County.
Each Thursday from late May to late October, customers can pick up their boxes at the farm or the Community Action Agency in Overland. Tempel also drops off several sponsor boxes for employees of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The nonprofit farm partners with the University of Missouri-St. Louis to host cooking classes and community dinners at nearby Bethany-Peace United Church of Christ. UMSL also works with the Hazelwood School District to take students on field trips to learn about small-scale farming.
“It’s a way to pair production and education and increase supply and demand at the same time,” Tempel said. “If people know more about fresh fruits and vegetables, they’ll demand them more often.”
Zora Guthrie already requests carrots for snacks at home. The 6-year-old also is a cabbage fan.
“It’s so sweet,” she said Wednesday as she helped her grandmother, Deborah Lewis, clean and package vegetables. Zora has been accompanying Lewis to the farm all summer.
She has the routine down: “After we pull the plants out of the dirt, we wash them and put them in the bags. Then we wash our hands.”
Zora and her mother live in the same North County apartment complex as Lewis, and the three generations share a food box. As a regular volunteer, Lewis receives hers for free.
“We juice now,” said Lewis. “Arugula, grapes, Fuji apples. It makes me feel so good.”
She has always included fruits and vegetables in her diet, but the convenience of Seeds of Hope makes it easier to try new things.
The farm also tries to respond to what clients want. This year, that means growing green tomatoes through a special project funded by a $25,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The money allowed Loui to join Tempel and Smith on staff.
Neighbors had been requesting the unripened nightshade, said Smith, who has managed Seeds of Hope for three years. “We’re always trying to grow things that people around here want. We’re always evolving.”
Dedicating space to the green tomatoes has limited the number of weekly shares to 30, down from about three dozen. But it was a tradeoff the farm was willing to make.
“There is a growing awareness that good food should be available to everybody,” Loui said. “We need to start addressing the issue by putting green spaces in our communities, making small farms part of the community.”
The grants for specialty crops — which include most fruits and vegetables, except corn and soybeans — were awarded to 11 organizations across the state this year.
“It’s about finding new ways to help a specialty crop thrive and developing farming techniques to grow a specialty crop that will be marketable,” said Liz Roberts, the grants manager with the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
“We were really intrigued with what (Seeds of Hope) wanted to do,” said Roberts, who recently toured the farm. “Part of our initiative is to get more agricultural products into the hands of more people.”
The green tomatoes will be included in the food shares and sold at markets such as Local Harvest and the Ferguson Farmers Market.
They aren’t quite ready yet, but that’s not likely to be noticed with last week’s bounty, which weighed in at about 13 pounds a share. After the boxes were packed, Tempel slid a flyer under each lid, explaining what was inside and how it could be used.
Six-year-old Zora doesn’t need the suggestions. She already knows what to do.
“I like to blend stuff, like salads,” she said. “I like to eat different foods.”