Living on Fertile Ground by Dawaune Hayes

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Kimara Snipe’s heart and kidneys started failing in 2014. The doctors told the 43-year-old, that the failure stemmed from a virus. Snipe blamed it on the overwhelming stress in her life — financial insecurity, loss of a loved one, and being overworked.

After being diagnosed with viral myocarditis, Snipe was in the hospital for almost a month and was assigned a nutritionist who told her that in order to stay healthy, she had to eat healthy.

“She told me to keep my sodium content under 190 milligrams, do you know how hard that is? With canned products? Have you ever looked at the milligram count on ramen noodles? It’s in the thousands, that’s going to kill our kids!” said Snipe.

Snipe said she worries her 18-year-old son and children in her community. “They are young right now and super resilient but what happens when they get older? It’s not just me.” High salt intake is associated with a doubled risk of heart failure, according to a 12-year study released by the European Society of Cardiology in 2017.

Snipe receives SNAP benefits, so while she appreciated the nutrition education for expanding her views on food, she says eating healthy on a budget is much harder than it sounds.

“Access to just healthy food is horrible. They only give me a little over $100 a month for myself and my son and trying to buy the foods that I know that my body needs to be healthy is extremely difficult. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, salads, just the stuff that you need as opposed to the packaged products,” said Snipe.

Farmers markets are another option for purchasing food and has perks for those who use SNAP. The markets provide local, fresh produce at prices similar to what one would find at a conventional supermarket. In addition, the Double Up Food Bucks program provides $10 vouchers for the first $10 of EBT credit, meaning a SNAP recipient could have $20 to spend at the market but only charge $10 to their card. Learn more about markets and vouchers on the Omaha Farmers Market website.

Snipe said she’s aware SNAP can be used at farmers markets, but there aren’t any nearby her South Omaha neighborhood. She also heard recent news that EBT technology at farmers markets may no longer work after July 31, 2018.

“The Food and Nutrition Service was recently informed by a major provider of mobile EBT technology for farmers markets and farm stands that it will discontinue this service,” Brandon Lipps, the administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, an arm of the USDA, said in a statement. “With few providers in this marketplace, this is of great concern. Farmers markets play an important role in providing Americans with access to nutritious foods.”

Acknowledging the difficulty in finding affordable, fresh produce and searching for more choices, Snipe turned to community gardens. She says,“I am blessed to know where gardens are and to [be] able to get some of this fresh stuff.”

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Will Jefferson is a self-described family man who works full-time as a certified nurse’s assistant who lives in North Omaha.

“Most of my clients that I serve are there because of bad diet choices,” like high sugar intake related to Type-2 diabetes, said Jefferson “A lot of times it’s just lifestyle, lifestyle put them in that situation. Where if we had different access to a different lifestyle maybe we wouldn’t see such a high rate of people being dependent on people like me at early ages in life,” he said.

Interested in finding a “different lifestyle,” Jefferson began searching online for ways to grow his own, healthier food at home for little to no-cost, and stumbled upon aquaponics.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides a food source for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish.

“Somebody could start doing it and growing greens and stuff like that for less than probably seventy bucks. Besides the little time and maintenance,” Jefferson said. His operation consists of a plant bed with clay pellets that allow water to filter down into a barrel of Crappie fish that he caught at Cunningham Lake, while a pump pushes water up to the plants to create an almost self-regulating system. He hand-feeds the fish, maintains lighting, and makes adjustments to create ideal growing conditions.

To get supplies for his first in-home setup, Jefferson visited Paradigm Gardens (8949 J St.). While consulting with the staff, he learned about a local aquaponic organization called Whispering Roots.

Greg Fripp, founder and executive director of Whispering Roots, has been in the aquaponic industry for years and teaches in schools across North Omaha like Monroe Middle School and King Science Center. Fripp’s most recent effort is a partnership with SeventyFive North in the Highlander Accelerator building (2112 N 30th St). The 18,000 square foot aquaponic greenhouse campus, currently under construction and set to open in late 2018, will serve as Whispering Roots’ education and food production headquarters in North Omaha.

Encouraged by Fripps work, Will harvested his first crop of homegrown lettuce and kale in spring of 2018. “There is some solace in that, you know, to know that I am producing or will be able to produce at some point what my family would need to thrive in a situation where some other people may not be able to because they didn’t maybe invest the time to do something like this,” said Jefferson.

A long-time resident of North Omaha, Will recognized the area as a “food desert.” A food desert is defined as an area where a community has low-access to healthy foods such as nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.

According to the USDA, to qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of a census tract population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

The USDA recognizes 18 census tracts as food deserts within Omaha. The majority of which reside in the north, central, and southern parts of the city.

Markets located in North Omaha, such as Phil’s Cash Saver (formerly Phil’s Foodway) and Chubb’s have participated in the Douglas County Health Department’s Healthy Neighborhood Stores program in an attempt to address the healthy food gap.

Walking into Phil’s Cash Saver on Ames Ave, one is greeted by cardboard bargain bins advertising cookwares, sweet snacks, spices, and watermelon. Scanning passed the rows of brightly colored packages, it’s easy to see the beer and liquor section has more real estate than the produce section. One lime, one lemon, one peach, and two plums cost a total of $3.31. The drink Sunny D, advertised as a source of Vitamin C while containing less than 2% fruit juice, was 2 for $1. Cookies were $.70 a package. A bottle of wine, only $3.74. When shoppers are on a tight budget, the cheaper, less healthy option can be more appealing.

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Jefferson believes that producing food in urban areas with efficient growing methods, like aquaponics or geothermal, would reduce cost and dependency on large corporate grocers, or even more local ones like Phil’s. “Because it would be so cheap, [you] wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store. You want a pound of lemons you ain’t gon’ have to pay $3.50 for them, you can come here and you can pay a $1…I don’t know, I be feelin’ like they robbing us, like they set us up,” he said.

A major source of inspiration for Will Jefferson is Russ Finch, a farmer based in Alliance, Nebraska who built a geothermal greenhouse he calls “Greenhouse in the Snow.” Finch’s greenhouse operates on a fan that circulates geothermal heat (heat from the earth). According to Finch, energy costs about one dollar a day and he produces hundreds of pounds of citrus fruit every year to sell at local farmers markets. Learn more at www.citrusinthesnow.org.

“I just wanted my family to not have to depend on the grocery store. That was the question. Who am I dependent on for my food? And that’s the grocery store and whatever truck company gon’ bring it there,” said Will.

Jefferson isn’t the only one in North Omaha looking to expand local, healthy food options. A visit to 34th & Binney reveals the newly constructed Shabazz Community Garden.

Garden organizer Leo Louis II calls the operation a “reclamation garden” as it uses discarded items collected from across the city. Old tires form a retaining wall, and concrete from broken sidewalks helped build garden beds that form a circular pattern, a symbol Louis believes represents unity.

The idea for the Shabazz Community Garden came together in 2008. It was first off of Evans Street, moved to the Binney site for a short time in 2010, then back to Evans for a few years until officially settling at its current half-acre lot this past spring.

Louis raised awareness by walking the surrounding neighborhood and striking up conversation and handing out packets of seeds.

“The organizing is simple, go door to door, like any other organization would, tell people what you’re doing and see who is willing to come participate,” said Louis.

His approach is working. Despite having only 20 available beds, 40 community members wanted their own garden. Now Louis says people young and old come together in the space, share tips, and harvest what their growing.

So far the garden beds are bearing zucchini and cucumbers with tomatoes close behind. Shabazz Community Garden participants stay in touch virtually too through an open Facebook group where they share their successes and challenges. The posts are enthusiastic. “Had a fun time at the garden today! Nothing to harvest yet, but we are bearing fruit!”

Louis said his mission is all about food security. “Making sure that people are conscious of what they eat, how to get access to what they eat, and to understand that there’s opportunities outside of the grocery stores,” he said.

Cait Caughey, education director of The Big Garden (5602 Read St) agrees with Louis. “I get to work with kiddos of all ages across the city and for many of them, it is the first time they may have ever seen where tomatoes come from,” she said.

Caughey coordinates over 55 garden sites, including OPS schools and early childhood centers. The Big Garden provides tools, supplies, and the education necessary to get a garden started with interested institutions, neighborhoods, and organizations.

The Big Garden partners with fellow urban agriculture non-profit City Sprouts (40th & Seward) to sponsor free community education classes called The Growing Gardeners Workshop Series. The series offers seasonal hands-on workshops that feature skills and techniques for every gardener and urban farmer: growing, cooking, preserving, and eating healthy, local food. All workshops are free or low-cost, open to all ages, and no one is turned away if they can’t pay.

Will Jefferson said he learned most of what he knows online and experimented until he got the hang of it. Now he has ambitions to expand his operation with the help of a friend, a local pastor, so he can share what he knows and begin to tackle healthy food access in his community around 24th & Sahler.

“My wish list? If I could, I would love to have $50,000. I could build two one-hundred foot geothermal, almost fully-automated, greenhouses,” said Jefferson. With those resources, he said he could grow local restaurants and grocery stores to any produce they wanted.

”We are going to eat at these places anyway. If they can get better food, we can eat better food,” he said.

Jefferson’s dream would fit with what Diamond Johnson, owner of Emery’s Cafe (2118 N 24th St), formerly the Fair Deal Cafe, wants to do. “I was actually talking to my chef about us growing our own stuff and cutting out the middleman. I just have to find the land close to do such,” said Johnson.

She went on to explain that the cost of buying produce from a distributor adds to her overhead, raising her menu prices. Diamond wants to make her food healthy, and affordable. She spoke fondly of growing up around fresh food. “My grandparents actually had gardens in their backyard, I was the kid that used to run through my grandma’s tomatoes and she used to yell out the kitchen window to tell me to stop,” said Johnson.

Will Jefferson recalled a similar experience. “My grandpa always had a garden,” he said. “We always ate fresh vegetables.”

Those memories drive Jefferson’s work today as he yearns to share what he’s learned about farming to help people become more self-reliant. “That’s my goal with it at the end, to have something where the community can come and learn how to do it, learn how to have some type of sufficiency or at least know how if just in case they ever needed to,” he said.

Ultimately for Will, it comes down to a simple shared experience.

“Everybody eat. No matter who you are, from the toughest gangsta to the nun in the convent, everybody eat…”, he said. Jefferson thinks bridging a food gap in North Omaha would do more than improve eating habits. “Help people not have to go out and commit what we call crimes just for basic necessities. A little bit of food. A little bit of shelter. Some stuff, man, if we just put our heads together, we could eradicate that through a community situation.”