Urban Farm

Five countries, ten blocks in St. Louis city, and 11 refugees. Ten city blocks have been transformed into mounds of dirt for a small farm in South St. Louis. The farm is used as an outdoor classroom for St. Louis refugees to learn about agriculture in the United States.

The Botanical Heights Community Garden in South St. Louis is one of the larger community gardens in the St. Louis area. Recently this garden was given a large addition, in the form of the ten block urban farm.

The 11 refugees in the three-year program must first attend English classes to learn the modern terminology for farming.

The students sold their farmed vegetables for the first time at the farmers market in Tower Grove Park this Saturday.

The International Institute of St. Louis runs the urban agricultural program, and the farm in St. Louis has been funded by grants from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

This year, a total of $1 million was given out in grants across the nation. The farm in St. Louis received a grant amounting to $80,000. Larry Laverentz manages the International Institute of St. Louis office’s Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, based in Washington.

The director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement started the program eight years ago.  He attended the Kellogg Conference, the largest philanthropic organization in the United States related to food systems and agriculture, and the conference made him decide that the country should have refugees involved in agriculture because most of them come from agrarian backgrounds.

“We are part of a movement in this country to grow local foods,” Laverentz said. “So the plans are to really integrate refugees into this national movement to have better locally grown food that impacts our health and reduces obesity and diabetes and other health related diseases.”

The program has been met with great success on both a local and national level.

When visitng a community farm in San Diego, First Lady Michelle Obama praised the program, calling it “a model for the nation, for the world.”

There are several goals that the program is hoping to achieve. Some include supplemental income for refugees and immigrants, better food and nutrition, better health, and a way to better integrate them into society.

[The program] has been very successful. Funding has grown from about $250,000 to a $1 million a year over the past eight years.

“We now have a list of over 230 subscribers,” Laverentz said. “A lot of these are organizations are not grantees, we only have 14 grantees, but a lot are just interested in this whole movement now, particularly on behalf of refugees and immigrants.”

The program also acts as a way for organizations to get support and some money when they are first getting started, so they can later apply for larger grants from the USDA, which has a much more money to hand out in grants.

The organization hopes that the program will affect not only the refugees and immigrants it is helping, but change the entire community as a whole.

“It will hopefully allow others in the community to see that gardens are a useful way to improve food supply and reduce grocery costs.”

But the main goal is to help refugees integrate into society and become successful citizens. It lends a helping hand so they can they can lead a life of accomplishment afterward.

“It’s a pathway to sustainable income,” Laverentz said. “It’s a way to eventually establish independent farmers.”