According to the USDA, food deserts are parts of the country void of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.
The local business Good Life Growing is combatting urban decay and food insecurity by way of urban farming. Located northwest of Saint Louis University in the city of St. Louis, it is working to bring healthy food to local food deserts. Sitting on almost two acres, Good Life Growing is focused on methods of organic farming, like aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics.
"We convert vacant, neglected urban spaces into thriving, productive micro-farms,” said co-founder and CEO James Forbes.
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. Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment rather than soil.
“I got my start in sustainable agriculture accidentally after graduating from Mizzou’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in ‘08, but I never planned to use the degree," Forbes said.
He was inspired to learn more haphazardly while watching an episode of "Doomsday Prepper" about surviving the apocalypse by using a solar panel and junk to make an aquaponics system. After his college days, Forbes and friends would practice building systems in one another’s backyards, and it was mind blowing.
“You can catch rainwater and raise fish and plants in any setting – rural or urban, indoors and outdoors, hot or cold," Forbes said.
City dwellers often have to live by way of convenience, lacking access or education to obtain healthy food.
"People load up on unhealthy food, which is why I think North St. Louis has such a higher rate of diabetes, liver failure, heart disease, obesity, asthma, etc.,” Forbes said. “It’s a compounding problem. Convenient food is not actually cheap. It adds up over the long run, and adds insane medical bills and prescriptions."
Poor health can lead people to self-medicate, which may lead to addiction, then fueling crime and narcotics trafficking.
“Because people living in food deserts lack access to food and dignifying work, it leads, from my observations, to the many social issues plaguing society today," Forbes said.
Good Life Growing aims to inspire, train, educate and incubate aspiring social enterprises to take up empty, blighted land that developers and investors ignore and turn them into thriving food-production organizations.
"I hope that people copy our urban farming model and spread it in every economically and resource-depressed part of the planet,” Forbes said. “Food injustice, to me, is one of the greatest tragedies that exist in the developed world, and I believe St. Louis is a microcosm.”
Forbes realizes it takes a village to improve the village.
His mentor, Ellis Bell, a 5th generation sharecropper from Mississippi, supported Forbes’ vision while he worked for him.
“He hired me on to his insurance brokerage and had me focused on agricultural insurance. I attended St. Louis Agriculture Club meetings with him,” Forbes said.
“From those meetings I got hooked up with the developers working on Farmworks, met a ton of great people and ultimately got access to our property in The Ville. I thought blending his concept of connecting youth to agriculture in an urban setting would be a good way to repurpose property and provide a skilled trade component. Lastly, he had me pursue expanding his non-profit organization that aimed at getting rural African-American youth exposed to agricultural studies so they can get access to the growing agriculture business sector.
He also relies on his aunt Ruth Smith, former president and CEO of Human Development Corporation of Metropolitan St. Louis, for daily guidance, community engagement and empowerment, and Alderman Sam Moore helped navigate city politics. His partners Matt Stoyanov, Bobby Forbes, and James Hillis, constantly help him to improve operations, and Roy Roberson, Jack McGee, and Janette Kohl are North St. Louis residents who keep him informed.
"On one acre of land, a family can generate over $40,000 a year. One acre equals three vacant lots in the city,” Forbes said. “They just have to learn how to grow, wash, package, and sell. With urban agriculture, we can introduce a new system of self-sustainability, healthier food options, occupied land, rising property values, better housing and schools, legal enterprise – and more businesses will move in."
Forbes noted that urban farmers with small plots face obstacles getting into the for-profit sector of the agriculture industry.
"It’s been historically geared to wealthy, predominantly white, rural people. I tell kids in The Ville all the time that there is a $5.2 trillion pie in food retail/production, and 99 percent of that is coming from the top 10 percent of the wealthiest food producers. The bottom 90 percent don't even touch the industry because we all assume farmers are poor and work too hard,” he said.
“I hope to see 1,000 families get into micro-farming, unify under a local collaborative of brands, retake and then reinvest in their communities. I'd then hope that, with good health and money, North St. Louis and other blighted urban cores can begin the long journey of unraveling systemic oppression."