Farmer gives away harvest to feed hungry in his town
Indianapolis — When Jonathan Lawler decided to turn his Greenfield farm into a mission to feed the hungry last spring, he had no idea how he would touch the lives of people living on the north side of Indianapolis.
Today, Lawler of Brandywine Creek Farms is working with staff at Flanner House community center to develop the state's largest urban farm in the heart of one of the city's biggest food deserts, areas that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy whole foods.
Flanner Farms will sprout next year on the 2½-acre campus of Flanner House, 2424 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. It's not a community garden, but rather a 1.3-acre working farm. And it won't just feed people; it will teach them how to grow their own food.
According to statistics provided by Gleaners Food Bank, 1 in 8 people in Central and southeastern Indiana struggles with hunger and food insecurity; that number grows to 1 in 6 in Marion County. Of the 170,820 people in Marion County who lack consistent access to enough food, 51,440 are children, according to Map the Meal Gap 2015, compiled by Feeding America.
"My job as a farmer is to feed the world, and we have people going hungry in my backyard," Lawler said. The 40-year-old father of three turned about half of his 36-acre Hancock County farm over to his nonprofit operation — growing corn, beans, zucchini, tomatoes and watermelon for people in need.
His original goal was to raise a half-million pounds of food; he estimates he hit 420,000 pounds. "The biggest challenge for us has been getting volunteers when we needed them to harvest," he said. "Some of the food went to waste, and as a farmer, that kills you."
Still, he describes the nonprofit farm's first season as "extremely successful." Later in the summer, he turned to machinery to harvest some of his bean and corn crop, and he firmed up his partnership with Gleaners, which dispatched a truck to collect produce whenever the farm had it available. Lawler said his advisory board estimated the monetary value of what was donated at well over $150,000.
Over the summer, Lawler learned about Flanner House and its work to feed surrounding neighborhoods. He and his three sons delivered a truckload of produce to the center, and there he met Brandon Cosby, executive director. It didn't take long for Cosby to see that Lawler would be an ally in his quest to take the 118-year-old center back to its agrarian roots.
"We are getting back to the historic legacy of Flanner House," said Cosby, who took over as executive director earlier this year.
As Cosby dug into the center's history, he discovered it had a farming program and a cannery as far back as the 1930s. Neighbors learned about urban agriculture and took home what food they needed. The remainder was sold at a co-op.
As the landscape changed and large grocery stores began popping up to supply easy access to food, the idea of growing your own dinner lost its appeal. But now many of those same groceries are closing, forcing vulnerable populations — those without access to transportation — to frequent dollar stores and gas stations for pre-packaged convenience foods.
Last year saw the closing of four Double 8 Foods stores in Indianapolis, one just up the street from Flanner House at 2907 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.
The closing was an exclamation point on an issue with which the community was dealing anyway, Cosby said. So rather than lamenting the loss of a store that he said people shopped at only because they had to, he is energized by the possibilities Flanner Farms presents.
Much more than a garden
On a recent tour of the property, Cosby points out where the largest part of the farm will operate, just west of the center's parking lot. They'll grow sweet potatoes, kale, onions, okra and more. Toward the front of the center's campus will be raised beds with produce free for the picking. Also planned are native Indiana fruit trees rimming the property, a fresh flower garden, preschool planting operation, a chicken coop, even a cafe and micro grocery.
In all, the first-year goal is to produce 40,000 pounds of food on-site, with Brandywine committing to another 50,000 to 60,000 pounds — mostly sweet corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and beans. With that, the center hopes to feed a combined 5,200 households with children in the 46208 and 46205 ZIP codes.
From May to September, a weekly farmers market will offer a portion of the farm's organic produce at below-retail prices. The market will operate adjacent to Watkins Park during the weekly Jazz in the Park music series.
Residents of the community will be employed to work the farm, as well as the cafe and grocery. A job-training program, funded in part by a crime-prevention grant from Central Indiana Community Foundation, will give people a fresh start, teaching them food industry skills, including growing, handling, distribution and service, and making them marketable to the city's many restaurants, Cosby said.
"I just love the idea that some folks who may have been responsible for terrorizing the community will be in the position of feeding the community," Cosby said. "That path to redemption is a really important one, and folks can do it in a very tangible, real way. This is how we’re re-creating and stabilizing our community."
Building a local food system
Mat Davis sees the farm as the foundation for a "just and equitable" local food system. As Flanner House's food justice coordinator, his responsibilities include getting the farm up and running, chairing the Northwest Quality of Life Food Access Committee and supporting community and residential garden development.
"We can really start to make some headway in addressing hunger," Davis said. He believes that means getting away from the reliance on emergency food aid in the form of pantries and soup kitchens.
At the same time, he said, "we're creating economic opportunities by working with young people in the neighborhood. Disadvantaged youth can have a viable opportunity to support themselves and their families while feeding their community."
The 22,000 people who live within the geographic area served by Flanner House are primarily African-American, many descended from the estimated 5 million people who were part of the Great Migration from the South to the North (between 1915 and 1960), Cosby said. Many left behind their lives as tenant farmers, sharecroppers and farm hands for better opportunities in the North.
"These people were responsible for feeding this entire country, and in one generation, we lost the ability to feed ourselves. I'm not OK with that," Cosby said. "We are not only making food more accessible here, but we're giving people the skills to produce it themselves."
'Fair and affordable'
Flanner House has an eager partner in Lawler, who is providing the seed, plants and equipment to get Flanner Farms up and running. He's hoping to turn the soil by Thanksgiving, in preparation for planting next spring, but the center first must raise enough money to build a fence around the property. Donations are welcome at Flanner House, 2424 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., Indianapolis, IN 46208. Or call (317) 925-4231.
"We are looking at building a food system that works, that's fair and affordable," Lawler said, adding that he's gotten backlash from some local farmers and chefs who suggest he is cheapening local food.
"I'm not, I'm making it affordable. There's a big difference," he said. "We want people to participate in local food and build an economy around it that will revolutionize food access so everybody has the right to it."
Right now, the local food movement is a fad, Lawler said. "And isn't that sad? The way my grandfather farmed and how farming communities in general relied on local food access, that's gone away. I want it to be commonplace again."
In the next growing season, Lawler expects to make the 25-minute drive from Greenfield to Indy's north side frequently with his sons, but he also expects to see youths from the neighborhoods that feed into Flanner House out at his farm. They'll get a taste of planting and harvesting, an experience he hopes will inspire them to want to learn more.
"If they can take something from seed to fruit, that's going to do wonders for them."
Since his story first appeared in IndyStar earlier this year, Lawler has attracted attention from multiple media outlets, as well as farming publications. In his Metallica T-shirt and International Harvester cap during one interview, he squirms a bit under the spotlight, but he keeps returning to his message.
"People tell me I'm revolutionary. No, I'm just a copycat, copying off what our forefathers did. There's nothing revolutionary about feeding your community."