Our small farm, Need More Acres, is located in the rural town of Scottsville, in Allen County, Kentucky. Although we now farm enough acres to sustain our community, the name recalls the original plot of land we lovingly tended in Bowling Green, in nearby Warren County. We began on two acres in 2003 and never looked back.
Now, starting early in the morning, the farm bustles with activity. After the animals are fed, breakfast served, and schoolwork finished, we start on the busy day ahead. Bushels of fruits and vegetables need to be carried in from the fields, while deliveries of fresh milk, cheese, and eggs are received from local farmers. Meanwhile, a team of young women from Bowling Green work hard in our on-farm certified kitchen preparing meals for citizens on the west side of Louisville who have been protesting no-knock warrants on behalf of Breonna Taylor. My five children, ages 3–16, each do their part, from overseeing the harvest to leading the kitchen work. The youngest clings to my skirt as I move from task to task.
My public commitment to food equity across the rural-urban divide began when I was asked to share my story at the Kentucky Public Health Association (KPHA) Conference, but the seed of this dedication was planted much earlier, before Need More Acres was even a glimmer in my imagination. When I was seven years old, I lived just outside of San Diego, California. My childhood struggles included abuse and, sometimes, hunger. This is more common than you might think; according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one in six children experiences food insecurity, defined as a lack of access to adequate food required to live a healthy, happy life.1 Back then, children considered “at-risk” were removed from the classroom from time to time for additional health classes. On one particular day, we were learning about locally grown fruits and vegetables. I’ll never forget when the college-aged health educator leaned down and handed me half of a kiwi and a spoon. As I took my first bite, she said,
“Anytime you have the opportunity to eat fresh, healthy food, you should, because you are worth it.”
This simple affirmation took root in my soul and would eventually become my life’s work, integral to the mission of my farm. Food is an essential part of universal concepts of home and family, and food insecurity is symptomatic of systemic inequalities that stop parents from being able to feed their children. If communities agree that no child should go hungry, how can we help keep food on the table?
Fast forward to the KPHA conference, where a public health employee shared Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, a tool used to determine a child’s risk of long-term health conditions. She explained that the more adverse experiences a person has, such as hunger, physical abuse, or being raised in a single-parent home, the more likely they were to suffer health complications like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. She encouraged each of us to take the test for ourselves and explained that a score of four or more put someone into the high-risk category. My score was nine out of ten. My “at-risk” assessment from school-age years came flooding back. As the speaker ended her session, she acknowledged the role resiliency plays in improving the quality of life for those who have adverse experiences. At that moment, it all came together: despite childhood trauma, the resiliency gleaned from that moment with the kiwi had blossomed into my life, complete with farming, parenthood, and lots of hard work and moments of joy.
The majority of that joy has been found on Need More Acres, which my husband Nathan and I co-own. We met 20 years ago when we were hired by the University of Kentucky to assist tobacco farmers with the transition to fruit and vegetable production. Nathan came from a full-time tobacco farm family in Hart County and understood how it felt to be part of that community. He had fond memories of growing up on a tobacco farm, where neighbors would help each other with harvests and where auction days brought celebration and rewards for hard work. Although the shift would not be easy, he was qualified to help farmers understand that growing fruits and vegetables would be beneficial in the long run. The tobacco market was shrinking, and fruit and vegetable production utilized much of the same equipment, labor, and cooperative model of selling.
While the farmers listened to us, I spent just as much time listening to them. I listened to women at their kitchen tables recounting memories of grandmothers’ gardens that used to feed the community, and how they wished their own grandchildren could eat better, more local food. Most women worked off the farm now, and didn’t have time to work a garden. Inspired by their stories, I shared their experiences with my coworkers, who were all men. Based on their tepid response, it seemed like community supported agriculture was not in season, so I mentally bookmarked these ideas. I knew they had merit, and I had patience. I kept listening, and I started taking notes.
That project ended, and we all went our separate ways. But years later, after we were married with four children, Nathan and I began working together again. In the meantime, hunger had only increased in Kentucky, and farmers were increasingly discouraged. This time, it was my turn to speak up. I told the stories of community gardens and collaborative efforts. I explained how local economies would benefit from connections between neighbors. With Nathan’s encouragement and support, I was able to fight for an equal seat at the table and advocate for all farm families. When we founded Need More Acres, we committed to an integrated food system that would benefit farmers, consumers, and local organizations from day one. We did this by centering three core elements that guide our production and distribution from seed to table: affordability, accessibility, and approachability. It would not be easy, but it would be worthwhile.
Resilience remains a key theme in most things I do and has helped me imagine new possibilities in food system development at the local level. I’ve been able to bridge the divide between farmer and consumer across economic and cultural barriers through the food we grow. In the beginning, our farm relied on traditional market sales and community supported agriculture, where individuals pre-pay for a weekly installment of produce during a season. Patiently, we dug our roots into the ground and the community. Now we work with local organizations like HOTEL INC to help meet the hunger, housing, and health needs of our neighbors on the west side of Bowling Green. We also serve Warren County citizens through HOTEL INC’s food pantry, Manna Mart. Through this partnership we foster our value of affordable fresh food for our community.
When someone is experiencing an acute crisis, such as chronic hunger or homelessness, it’s easy to wonder what role locally grown food can play in immediate solutions. Indeed, personal safety and security take precedence, but access to fresh food may be more important than you think. Consider the sense of self-worth I felt as a young child from a simple reminder that we all deserve a healthy and nourishing life. While access to fresh food is not a panacea, we do believe it is a part of the solution and so collaborating with HOTEL INC made the most sense for our mission of accessibility. Together, we work to overcome food access barriers by making fresh food more attainable.
Working alongside Dalla Emerson, Director of Child Nutrition for Bowling Green City Schools, we recognized that there was a disconnect between their students and the locally grown food they grew up seeing but were unable to access. Now, thanks to a federally funded fruit and vegetable program, students in Bowling Green City Schools and rural Allen County/Scottsville schools receive fresh root crops, greens, and storage crops in the classroom during what’s traditionally considered the off winter season. Not only do we bring food to the schools, but eventually we were able to bring the students to the farm, to give them a chance to physically interact with the crops as they grow, and to get to know the origins of the food they’ll later enjoy in the classroom. Hopefully, some find an increased taste for these foods, and will be able to advocate for themselves, to get the nutrition and nourishment they deserve even after they graduate. Through this connection with our local schools, we make fresh food accessible.
Over the years, thousands of elementary students have visited Need More Acres. Early on, we discovered that many of them had never been outside Bowling Green city limits. It also became clear that they recognized that we were the farmers who grew their food, but they could not envision themselves as farmers. A couple of months after the first group of students visited the farm, we hosted a group from the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, a creative leadership program designed to build confidence, grow social capital, and bridge divides to unite Kentuckians. We gave them a tour of the farm, demonstrated how we grow our crops, and made sure to incorporate a taste of the food that we grow. There were bowls of apples to try, bushels of sweet corn to shuck and eat, and a cooler of Ale-8s to enjoy as we worked and talked. One of the participants in the program was Ashley Smith, who would go on to start Black Soil: Our Better Nature, an organization that brings urban and rural people to experience Black-owned farms with their eyes and taste buds. The ecosystem of fresh food access and education is now expanding into a new generation.
When asked about her experience on the farm that day, Ashley said,
As my partner Trevor and I walked the farm and realized how the experience of food, history, and story[telling] have been intertwined, we realized that this could not only be possible on black-owned farms across Kentucky, but that on-farm experiences would be the perfect way to use my personal expertise in the agriculture industry.
Ashley put this idea to work and began hosting on-farm educational events for people of any agrarian experience level. When Nathan and I have had the honor of attending Black Soil events, we always leave educated and inspired.
Our mission of making farm-grown food approachable is carried on in our Farm School Days, in Ashley’s work at Black Soil, and by other groups that connect consumers and farmers, like another close friend of ours, Cassia Heron. Cassia taught me what it looks like to care about and support someone else’s experience, to turn empathy into action. Cassia’s food justice dream was to start a grocery store in Louisville; this is being realized in the form of the Louisville Community Grocery.
As our community connections expanded and solidified, student visits became part of our annual ebb and flow, and organization collaboration was streamlined, we sensed there was a next step to connecting urban students and rural farming. This is when we asked Ashley to become a mentor to our farm’s social justice work. It was Ashley’s leadership, in collaboration with Cassia, that motivated the delivery of food to the west side of Louisville this summer. Together with urban farmers in Louisville, we were able to distribute fresh food to the west side of Louisville as an offering of hope during a time of unrest.
We can all make a change to build a more sustainable local food system. The way forward is through fostering networks of advocates for healthy food access and education. The key players are large and small, and include government organizations, nonprofits, schools, farmers, and local businesses to leverage supplemental nutrition programs, federal funding, and small regional grants to make creative, positive change. I encourage you to seek out food access programs in your community and participate in any way possible. If none exist, think of one person in your community, and reach out to start a small food equity project. It really can be as simple as that.
Here are some resources to get you started:
Kentucky Public Health Association: http://www.kpha-ky.org
Louisville Community Grocery: www.loufoodcoop.com
Black Soil: Our Better Nature: www.blacksoilky.com
Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange: www.kyrux.org
Michelle Johnson Howell lives in Scottsville, Kentucky, with her husband Nathan, and their five children. Michelle, a graduate of WKU (Agriculture), is a full-time farmer, writer, and community organizer committed to equity in accessibility of food and opportunity.