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In a study performed in 2011, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services released a health assessment stating that Missouri’s obesity rate was 30.2 percent, higher than the U.S. rate of 27.7 percent. The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, a Sustain Mizzou project formed in 2009 by Adam Saunders, Dan Soetaert and Bobby Johnson, grew to counteract the rise in obesity and the low rate of vegetable consumption.
In 2007, two years before CCUA was founded, the Census of Agriculture found that 47 percent of Missouri’s total agricultural receipts came from crops. With a boom in urban agricultural interest over the last ten years, CCUA educates the eager masses and increases the receipts in the metropolitan area.
CCUA’s core program, the Urban Farm Experience, gives K–12 students, adult civics groups and college classes at MU and Stephens College the capacity to not only set foot on a farm for potentially the first time, but also to interact with the food they eat every day. Urban farm educator Kyle Holland tailors each class specifically to the needs and desires of each group, providing a unique and flexible experience.
“We’ve seen a lot of kids pull their very first carrot out of the ground, and it’s a really profound experience for them to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s food under the ground!’” says Heather Gillich, director of education. “It can be the same for adults too. It really highlights the need for connecting people to food origins.”
CCUA hosts a program in seven primary schools across Columbia, establishing outdoor classroom committees comprised of administrators, teachers, parents and community volunteers invested in connecting children to what they eat. The nonprofit also hosts clubs and activities for students interested in exploring the world of agriculture and works with the international organization Slow Food to provide in-class activities on good, clean and fair food. Currently, in three schools, CCUA hosts a Harvest of the Month program, where students learn about one crop at a time: how to produce it, what the experience is like and how to cook with the crop.
“The students really get engaged with it,” Gillich says. “One of the things that was really surprising to me last year was that we focused on cabbage, and they made these quesadillas that had apple, cheddar and sauerkraut. The kids loved it.”
CCUA boasts a list of over 30 local business partners, including Happy Hollow Farm, The Blue Note and Lucky’s Market. The business partners make CCUA’s constantly evolving agricultural projects and education possible with the help of grants and sold produce. With help from these partners, CCUA has the capacity to partner with nonprofits like Sustainable Farms and Communities for their latest ongoing project: building a city park focused on urban agriculture near the Columbia Farmers Market at the Activity and Recreation Center.
“[Our partnership with CCUA] has been very constructive,” Sustainable Farms and Communities chair Kenneth Pigg says. “Obviously, we share the same commitment towards local food and healthy eating, so anything that falls within that framework, we can often find common ground and a way to work on things.”
CCUA hosts a variety of projects year-round, including Planting for the Pantries. The philanthropic project asks business, churches, clubs and individuals in the Columbia community to sponsor 4-by-60-foot rows of food at their urban farm. Over the program’s first three years, more 10,314 pounds of food have been produced in the 50 rows.
“With every dollar we raise through these row sponsorships, we do three things: 50 cents is used to take the fresh produce we grow at the urban farm to the local food pantries and hunger relief outlets; 25 cents goes towards educational funding; and the final 25 cents goes into an endowment fund to provide more financial security for what we do,” says Saunders, CCUA’s public outreach coordinator and co-founder.
The nonprofit also raises funds through an edible landscaping service and “opportunity gardens.”
For low-income families in the Columbia area, CCUA’s opportunity gardens program provides materials and mentoring for people to begin their own garden at home, hoping to “create gardeners” rather than give away gardens. The three-year program is free, but those eligible are required to fill out applications and expectation forms, meet with a staff member, and assist in creating the garden. To date, more than 92 low-income families and 500 individuals have participated in the program.
“There’s a lot of excitement and momentum around local food and healthy eating, so really what we do is we tap into what the needs of the community are,” says Billy Polanski, CCUA general manager. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
On April 10, CCUA will host their first Empty Bowls, a free lunch and dinner at the Missouri United Methodist Church, in hopes of raising hunger awareness and taking donations for the Planting for the Pantries project.
“I hope there’s interest to do this in years to come and hopefully to grow this into a pretty significant project that feeds a lot of people and raises money for Planting for the Pantries,” Saunders says. “Our ultimate goal is to get row sponsorships every year and take all 50 rows to the food pantry.”
While the nonprofit hopes to further expand into surrounding communities in the future, their main goal is to continue working on their vision of a healthy and active community in Columbia. By providing programs to every generation and class, they hope to inspire an increase in urban agriculture.
“It’s surreal to think back seven years and think how far things have come,” Saunders says. “We started as an all-volunteer effort with very little funding, and it’s grown to be a big crew of tens and hundreds of volunteers and really great programs. Looking forward eight years, looking at what we have on our build list and possibilities that we’re kicking around, it’s really exciting to see what could materialize.”