Art Friedrich, the Executive Director of Urban Oasis Project, sat down with FLFPC Board Member Dell deChant and FLFPC Administrative Assistant Kyndra Love for a conversation on current initiatives and challenges at Urban Oasis Project and discussed policy recommendations that could foster positive change.
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Dell: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, your experiences and what brought you to this particular moment?
Art: Thanks so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to talk about it and talk about our history. Urban Oasis Project, we've been here in Miami for 10 almost 11 years now, and it really was created when I moved here to Miami and met a woman named Melissa Contreras who was working at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. We really wanted to put out this message that we need to be growing more food.
My background, I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, so I really grew up in the Midwest and lived in St. Louis, Missouri for a long time and created a community center there. And as part of that community center, we had started a little community garden and it just was really great to see the response of so many different people to that community garden. It was a real way to interact and build a bridge with the local kids in the neighborhood where the community center was. And from before that in high school I had gotten involved in things like the environmental club, I had gone vegetarian and I had gone vegan because I really read a lot about the environmental impacts of industrial farming and so food issues to me really bring together some really core things.
For one, it's just a universal important aspect of our lives. It's one of the most intimate aspects of how we live—what we're buying and putting into our bodies to feed ourselves. It can really can really be a way that can address so many of the different disparities that we see. Our country was built upon slave labor and creating farms and agriculture systems built on the oppression of other people, and we still see a lot of parallels to that today of farmworkers being severely underpaid, mistreated, you know, retained as undocumented illegals. And so, they are still mistreated because of all those categories yet still run the entire food system for the most part. The flip side of that is where people can really, on a personal level, grow their own garden and really nourish themselves.
So, Urban Oasis Project kind of brings together a lot of those ideas. That we can create a more just and more economically viable system for small and local farmers, especially in our communities in Miami and in Florida in general. We can promote better public health by making sure that that fresh produce is going directly from farms to people, and highlighting the economic disparities that people are living with—so getting it to the low-income people giving them access to the fresh produce. Combating food deserts, making food more affordable and finding different ways and tactics to make it more affordable and more appealing to those folks. Then, at the same time, that creates an environmental protection benefit by promoting small farms that can have the flexibility to be more environmentally sustainable. But they're all ideals that have to be brought together and work together.
Dell: Could you tell us a little bit or highlight a specific project or two that has been successful for you at Urban Oasis Project?
Art: We've been doing things for 11 years now in Miami, so we've done a lot of different things. It’s really a very small organization. Often, I’ve been the only full-time employee and then often two or three others. Our kind of biggest effort was when we partnered with the homeless trust and Carrfour Supportive Housing to create the Verde Gardens Farm. They created an assisted housing community down in Homestead, on 23 acres that used to be the Air Force base. So, they created all of these permanent assisted housing units and then we created a farm market to provide food access and also just jobs and job training for the people that moved in there.
A lot of what we do now is we run farmers markets in Miami. So we bring farms, when we can, to the markets and then we do what we can to grow some of our own stuff when we have the capacity. We buy from a bunch of local farms and we highlight that every week in our newsletter and links on our website.
Dell: I’m curious if there was any resistance or pushback from others regarding that policy or that project that you worked on to really make genuine farmer markets local, because here in this area for example, there was pushback especially among folks that were used to going to farmers markets and getting food from around the world out of season and they said I’m not ever going to come back here again, you just don't have what I want. What was your experience on that?
Art: So, we only have had to be very careful about curating who is selling at our market. Generally, because we aggregate produce from so many different farms, we do have a lot available. Especially during the summer there are just very little vegetables but we have tons of fruits. So, we just let people know that in the summer fruits are going to be local and vegetables are going to be labeled with where they come from. We've been able to use that year-round market and labeling to help push local farms to grow more, whereas it may not be commercially viable things from the permaculture thread. So, we can grow different things and see if people are interested in buying those to eat more local produce that's in season here.
A lot of our mission is to also improve public health, so we do a lot of programs that are specifically geared towards getting food to low income folks. We do get things from farther away and we do get things from the conventional food chain so that we can maximize the nutritional value getting to these people whose primary concern is food and nutrition. It’s not supporting a whole alternative food system that we need to be creating. It all kind of works together to build a more cohesive and adaptable program for us.
Dell: You’ve touched on several topics that actually raise philosophical issues related to nutrition in the food system and also making sure that folks that may be in disadvantaged communities are able to get wholesome nutritious food. I want to return to that in a moment, but before doing that I want to highlight a couple of the foods that you mentioned because this is kind of the practical side of our discussion. I think you mentioned some of the Bok choys and I think you mentioned okra, but could you just review very briefly some of the foods and produce that Urban Oasis has been able to grow in Miami so that others who may be interested in doing something like this can do it themselves, either in their own homes or in their home gardens, or perhaps if they envision doing a program similar to what you're doing there?
Art: I myself have never managed a farm by myself so when we ran our farm we hired a farm manager who was able to run our farm. So some of the local farms would probably be able to speak better to that. For example, Cool Running Farm and just the folks that are now down at Redland Community Farm. But some great things to grow in the summer are Calabasas and Seminole pumpkins. We grew thousands of pounds accidentally one year which we were then able to harvest in August and September and keep them in a cool storage for three months. So we worked our way through just growing what was kind of an accidental cover crop as the farm was transitioning between managers. Yuca is great to go in the summer; it does really well. A bunch of the different Asian greens like the Bok choys, okra, collards, you know, I’ve seen Lacinato Kale.
You can do more especially when you're able to not just be a five-acre open field but you're able to grow where there's maybe some other trees for some shade or some buildings to give some partial shade or put up a shade house, which is one thing that we built at Verde Farm, and then be able to grow indoors or semi-indoors under the shade house to limit the amount of intense sun that we get, because we just get so much sun. Things burn up. It's too hot and humid for things to cool off and transpire for the plant to cool itself down. So you really have to have some plants that are well adapted to the environment
Dell: This is a story for all of us to take home and take away from, that indeed in Florida you can grow a tremendous number of high yield food production crops all throughout the summer and in terms of being able to meet the needs of communities that's what's really important. You need to get the foods that are not just food products that you can grow in your backyard or on a small plot. but that you can produce in quantity so that you can actually make a difference in the food supply and that's what Art is doing down at Urban Oasis in the Miami area.
Kyndra: I'm wondering if there are any specific gaps or challenges that you think that we could address using policy?
Art: First, I would start with a great resource for people to go really deep, and actually it's one that I pulled off of the recent Florida Food Policy Council email, which was for the HEAL Food Alliance. They are a really multicultural group led by people of color that has got an amazing analysis of many different facets of the food system and the areas where injustices are occurring and solutions. So I’ve been just educating myself from that website. It's so well put together—it's visual, it's graphic, as well as just a huge amount of thought in that. So I really encourage people to look to that and to look to especially other organizations led by people of color like Soul Fire Farm that are really trying to you know push ideas that are more often informed by the people that are affected most by the injustices in the food system.
What we've seen, and one of our tactics, is just connecting more people to food and empowerment through food. So helping people start their own gardens and grow some of their own food is a really basic kind of starting block for people to recognize the impact of food on their own lives, for people who recognize the agency that they can have in growing some of their own food, and you know really just enjoy the process of food more.
There are so many cultural changes that need to be made. We've seen for so long pushing food from being a source of kind of value and importance to being just a commodity, to food being just fuel for the body, which kind of sweeps under the rug a lot of the really valuable aspects of food—that it's what connects us to cultural heritage and it connects these things together. And so often we see things like the church meal, that's the most important part of the church service in a lot of places, because that's where people can actually come together meet each other and share food. It's such an important thing. So, kind of re-elevating food as such an important thing every day, you know bringing back the just cooking dinner at home, making sure that people have enough time in their lives to be able to cook some of their own meals. If people are working 40-60-80-hour weeks, they don't always have time to cook enough of their own meals to be able to eat healthy.
Dell: You touch on a couple of issues that are kind of, I think, fundamental and very basic to the kind of cultural change that would be necessary to have not only a more sustainable food system but also address some of the systemic challenges that are present in underserved communities. One term that you use was the commodification of food which has happened on a dramatic scale, on a massive scale especially my lifetime. The commodification of food on the one hand, the overworked American to borrow an oft-used term in economic analysis, that we are overworked having to work 30 40 50 or more hours a week, that we have very little time to spend with our family and with our communities; and in third, you brought up religion somewhat in passing, but I think in a very profound way that very often the religious community is, historically at least, has been a source not only for community and conviviality, but also a source for food. Where people went and ate together and shared a meal. That's how you begin to develop those culture.
But if you look at those three elements, being overworked, the commodification of food, and the loss not just of religious community but community in general where people shared time together around food, all three of those elements have been severely affected by our culture of the last 50 years or so, but especially the last 20. It seems difficult to me as a researcher in this area to see how exactly we begin to make those inroads. The point you make is good and I celebrate it. That we need to begin to encourage people to do the gardening. We do need to encourage people to take a little bit more time around the dinner table. Yet it seems that we're up against just a tsunami of cultural forces that make those kinds of active activities very very difficult to sustain. So, I don't want to problematize it too much, but I do want to suggest that the challenges are indeed dramatic and what it might take to begin to reverse those challenges. You mentioned a couple.
Dell: Do you have any other thoughts along those lines specifically in those three areas? What would be something that we might do to be able to address that locally perhaps but maybe more generally in a cultural sense?
Art: I mean it's tough. Some of it is just kind of changing our value system. More and more people are watching more food programs on TV than they are cooking their own food, even as the cooking programs have risen in popularity people are cooking less and less of their own food. So, you know, people have to turn their TVs off more and take care of themselves better.
Dell: Your initial response was yeah there's some challenges there but I think as you work through that and thought about it further you hit on a lot of really helpful and insightful observations about what can be done. For example, lifting up the prestige or at least the profile of the farmer. We talk about how in education the teachers are devalued within our culture, well so are the farmers. As we work for programs that would try to uplift the status of teachers, we can do the same thing with farmers, with local growers, with the person that devotes their life to this kind of activity. You hit on, and I just want to reinforce this, the idea of federal subsidies that would be directed to farmers that are working especially in urban environments. The USDA sends billions and billions of dollars to large-scale industrial farming, and yet very little is diverted into urban agriculture and local systems. Very little is diverted into the education of the next generation of Americans. How many resources are devoted to agriculture in the public school system? It used to be that it was not unusual in Florida to have an Ag program in most high schools in Florida, even in urban high schools. Today, they virtually have disappeared. That would be another area where work could be done. And think again for a moment about land-grant universities around the country but let's talk about the state of Florida. The University of Florida, that's the land-grant university, that's where agriculture happens if you want to learn how to be a farmer you go to the University of Florida. How many other universities in the state of Florida actually have agricultural programs, not just a course about farming or food production or the history of food, but actually have hardcore nitty-gritty boots on the ground, learn about the biology learn about biomes, learn about what can be grown, serious developed agricultural programs at universities around this state. I don't think there's a one. So we're educating tens of thousands of persons to become leaders in our society that know nothing about agriculture and have had no exposure to it. That would be another area. Don't get me started!
But what you've hit on the points that you made about public policy, diverting resources into direct support of local growers, local property acquisitions, making grounds and properties available for folks to grow, overnight would make a tremendous difference. And yet there does not appear, as of this moment at least, a will to move in that direction from a policy perspective, but perhaps there could be. And folks like you Art and what you're doing in your projects and some of the other projects around the state are beginning to make that difference.
I think what might be our final observations on this is that all of us, folks like you and Kyndra and other members of the Florida Food Policy Council, need to continue to lift our voices. We need to speak out and we need to speak to others about the importance of these projects and do whatever we can to get the attention of those that are making the policy decisions in the state. And if you can find that elected official or that that person seeking elected office who will advocate for it and we can ask those people, “What is your position on urban agriculture?” “What is your position on diverting some of the resources into helping people grow their own food?” “What is your position on diverting resources so that properties can be acquired to grow food in urban settings?” and see if the advocacy that we have can then be translated into political action by the government officials, that we would support in their efforts to achieve a political position within the state legislative position in the state. Those are things that that can be done and can happen.
Kyndra: For younger people who are interested in getting more involved with policy and engaging in the food system, do you have any suggestions on how they can do that?
Art: That’s a difficult question. It can be very challenging to engage sometimes. We get a lot of requests for people to volunteer, which when we were running our own farm we were able to use more volunteers, but in some ways it's often been difficult for us to engage a lot of volunteers. I know up in Orlando they have the Fleet Farming Network, people doing gardens by bikes and riding around the city to kind of distribute network of gardens. I’ve also seen in other places folks organizing crop mobs where they organize a big volunteer day and they go to a farm, so they have a whole bunch of people at once like 20-30 people come out to a farm and spend a day working on a farm together. It's a great way to learn some of the nitty-gritty and get some experience of what it's like to be on a farm. You get to engage with a farmer and, hopefully, create some really big tangible benefits to accomplish some major project that the farmer needs to get done and help them be more sustainable. So that can be a great way to do that and then hopefully those crop mob groups can also be organized to like have a social hour and talk about policy issues as well.
Food policy councils can also be a great way to have some discussion and learn about those policy issues. I think that's a lot of it is volunteering with some local type of agricultural institution and looking for ways to tap in and volunteer. Especially in South Florida, volunteering happens at a way lower rate than most of the rest of the entire country, so promoting civic engagement by way of volunteerism and giving your time is a great way to learn. Really one of the most important ways to learn like that is through experiential learning.
Dell: In so many of these instances what you mentioned both from Fleet Farming as well as the Miami-Dade Food Policy Council as well as this food policy council, is to work to develop the network of individuals who are committed, to be able to meet with others that share the vision and develop strategy and tactics to get the word out. So often it seems, especially in Florida, that folks feel isolated, they feel alone, and maybe more so now with the challenges of the pandemic that they don't realize that they're part of a larger group. If you're in an area where there isn't a group, you can start a group, you can reach out to other people, you can be the person that shows up at the civic center and you're the only one there on the first night but maybe two more come, maybe it's three the next night. It does begin that way and it can be a ripple effect.
Art: Absolutely! We started just by having potlucks and that was all we did. People generally were growing and had their own gardens, so people would come together bring a few things that they grew and cooked up and just got together to create some kind of community around local food. That's you know that's all it took to start growing this organization and that drew in a lot more people because everyone wanted to find gardens and because we were meeting a need that we hadn't exactly realized so tangibly at the beginning. We hadn't like set out it's like, “Oh, this is what we need to do,” but once we did, once we were like “Oh, this is really important work and we need to do more of this,” that just drew people like a magnet to where six months later another organization asked us to start a farmers market in their community and we said sure we can try to figure that out…But for a long time you know it was a labor of love.
Dell: And the labor of love now has translated into a viable economic adventure for you, that pro your program is successful and you're successful at it, and so I just want to say to everyone that may be listening to this or picking this up sometime in the future is this does work it can be done. And there are stories like arts around the State and around the nation of folks that have just rolled up their sleeves gotten involved found what they love and committed themselves to it, and then a wonderful work evolves from that a wonderful flower blooms as a result of the work that's been that's being done.
I want to just share one last thought about getting youth involved. If you're in an organization or if you're working with other people, maybe you don't have an organization where you just have a group that meets occasionally, think about perhaps reaching out to the local public schools. Many students are looking for opportunities to serve their community. Many schools have programs where students actually have to be involved in some way and some sort of service to their community. If you can go to the guidance counselor, the administrator, the principal of the school and say, “Hey, did you know we have community gardens here?” or “Did you know that we have a farm to table dinner we do every month? We'd love to have some of the students in your school participate in this.” That very often will open up the door to youth participation.
Art: Going back to the way that I got involved in this kind of work, I was 20 years old moving to St. Louis engaging with the local farmers market to get their food waste and then running a Food Not Bombs chapter to cook up all that food waste and just distribute good quality cooked food to homeless folks and to activists, and supporting people that were in need with that food waste. So that was a big part of how I got into this kind of stuff. Now it's come full circle where I’m now supporting a Food Not Bombs chapter here which is feeding over 400 homeless people every week during the pandemic with healthy safe hot meals. So that's been really great to be able to be supportive of that.
Also, you know, the important thing is it's not going to be a get-rich-quick scheme for anyone. You can't cut corners. You have to create authenticity. It's going to take a lot of time. And that does take personal resources that takes capital. A lot of the groups here they actually had initial support from stimulus dollars from the 2008 recession that the health department put out, and so that allowed farmers markets to get started. And yeah, a lot of them failed, but you know what a lot of businesses fail. So it's not surprising. Even if it's a great meaning for to be good intention kind of business, it may still fail. You have to have that right mix between meeting a need that is there in the community and a community that is able to get that need met.
Dell: If you were meeting with someone for the first time who expressed marginal interest interested in doing something to make the world better through food, what would be the one guidance that you would give that person?
Art: If they're just getting started and they want to stay small and stay easy, just cook a meal for a neighbor; bring one person a meal. Use some good quality ingredients. It's going to take a little creativity and it's going to be a little challenge, but it's a great way to connect with someone—with someone new hopefully. Support someone in need and start really small.
Dell: I can't think of something better myself to say! Art, we appreciate the work that you're doing we appreciate your commitment and your lifetime of commitment to this work. Your work is an inspiration, you personally are an inspiration to everyone that's involved in this work.
Art: I really appreciate. I’m very blessed to be able to do the work I do. You know, it's me here talking today but my inspiration comes from so many people around me, from so many people that are leading the movements for environmental justice, for racial justice, for food justice. You know, most of Urban Oasis Project is made up of women of color and they're the real people that are doing so much of the work, and so I just can't thank them enough for all their dedication and their leadership, and some of the organizations we named today and so many more people that are really working hard to make a world that is livable for all of us. So, the inspiration it comes from all around, when we look at the people that are taking leadership and value them.
Urban Oasis Project's Website: http://www.urbanoasisproject.org/
Urban Oasis Project's Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/urbanoasisproject/
Guest Bio: Art Friedrich is the Executive Director of Urban Oasis Project and owner of Greenthumb Popcorn LLC. Urban Oasis Project has been working to make a food movement that is more accessible and affordable in Miami for the last 12 years by building gardens, running farmers markets, aggregating produce from numerous farms, running a mobile farmstand, hosting farm to table dinners, distributing Fruit and Veggie Prescription boxes and much more. Since Covid-19 shut down farmers markets in Miami, they have created a virtual farmers market and have a preorder and drive through pickup model, as well as offering delivery. They have also fundraised through those customers to support a growing Community Food Boxes distribution called Project Maracuaya, and are feeding 100 families through that initiative. They have always doubled the value of SNAP benefits at markets, driving more SNAP dollars into the local farm economy and more fresh veggies into the kitchens of people who are most negatively impacted by food access and affordability.
Disclaimer: The views of the speakers do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.