Matt Lebon learned to cook beyond the microwave when he landed in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. He’d enjoyed the foods his mother cooked for holidays growing up; the latkes, brisket, matzoh brei and her signature dish, mandelbrot. He ate healthy dinners his working parents could easily prepare during the week. He cooked simple pastas, egg dishes and breakfasts in college.
Like many college students, Lebon pondered the big questions of life in the ivory tower of academia. Unlike many, he sought the answers to tough questions with his feet on the ground, fully engaged in cultural experiences beyond his comfort zone.
In Paraguay, he cut sugar cane working beside his village neighbors. He shared in the daily life of a small village. He cooked and ate the local foods.
“Fruit almost rained down in my front yard,” he says. “Mangos, papayas, guavas, oranges, lemons and limes. Avocados, too. The villagers ate them sprinkled with sugar as a dessert. I made and shared guacamole, and they thought I was strange.”
Strange, maybe, but the villagers often invited Lebon to share meals. They shared seeds and divided plants with him as well so he could have a garden.
“I was head-deep into farming as soon as I grew my first lettuces,” he says.
For Lebon, one big question during his studies in college had been understanding the roots of world poverty. The answer, he believes, lies in global food issues. His experiences in Paraguay led him to become part of the solution; to strive for food justice.
He learned the value of land and water conservation working a permaculture farm in Israel. He experienced the success of urban farming hands-in-the-dirt on a rooftop at EcoStation: NY. At Riverpark Farm in Brooklyn, a stalled construction project afforded Lebon the experiences of farm-to-table growing for Riverpark, a Tom Colicchio restaurant.
More important, the Riverpark model showed Lebon how one urban farm can educate and feed a community with outreach and educational programs. He wanted to return to St. Louis, where urban farming has grown into more than a passing craze, to put his ideals into action. He found a willing partner in EarthDance Farms, where he works as volunteer coordinator.
The day of his interview for this story, Lebon was preparing lunch for eight colleagues at EarthDance to be served the following day. He’d gathered eggs from his backyard coop, harvested lettuces, greens, radishes and herbs from the yard, and cooked a big pot of rice.
Communal lunches at EarthDance provide the staff with valuable time to discuss what’s happening on the farm, but also to connect on a personal level. Staff members take turns making meals with farm-fresh produce.
“I’ll make fried rice, wrapped in tortillas, with greens on the side. It’s similar to how I cooked in Paraguay, but with most ingredients grown in Missouri.”
He’s the first volunteer coordinator at the 14-acre farm in Ferguson. Last year, EarthDance bought the land it had been farming as tenants. Lebon planted demonstration gardens this year to showcase growing methods and varieties of plants. He and his volunteers planted an herb spiral and a Native American three-sisters patch of corn, beans and and squash. Visitors will find a tomato-and-pepper project that moves beyond Big Boys and bell peppers. He’s got a patch of plants happily growing in straw bales, too.
“Straw bale plantings will work anywhere, and they’re especially good in urban areas where land and resources are scarce.”
Compost matters so much at EarthDance that Lebon has tapped neighbors in Ferguson for materials: used coffee grounds from the coffee houses, beer mash from the Ferguson Brewing Co. and food scraps from Blue Skies recycling.
“You can see the cycle from food to ground to growing things in the compost,” Lebon says. “It’s one way we educate. Food is a cornerstone of our society. At EarthDance, we work for food justice; good food, available to all.”