Straw hat in hand, Tyrean “Heru” Lewis jumped out of his pickup truck along busy Shackelford Road in North St. Louis County and walked into the treeline, where he had something special to show.
On the other side, uniform rows of vegetables — lettuce, radishes and bok choy — sprouted on half an acre. The land is not on a remote country farm, but just 17 miles from the Delmar Loop in the heart of the metro. As Lewis, founder of Heru Urban Farming, checks the crop he gets excited about its progress, raising his voice over the sound of traffic.
As he talks, he describes the need he has seen in St. Louis, his hometown, the neighborhoods where many children don’t have enough healthy food to eat, and where the nearest fresh vegetable can be miles away.
He has also seen how gun violence has become a fact of everyday life in these same neighborhoods. As a health teacher, he saw one of his students go to prison for a shooting. As a resident, he hears gunshots daily around his home, and three or four people get killed in his neighborhood every year.
“I mean, that’s normal to some people and unfortunately to me,” he said.
Researchers say a host of factors contribute to a city’s gun violence problem — what they define as deficits in social determinants of health such as income, housing, healthy living environments and quality education.
And food insecurity.
Lacking a complex nutritional diet can harm brain development in childhood, according to public health experts. That can cause later problems dealing with peers, handling authority and responding to situations of extreme stress.
The problems facing areas that experience gun violence are many, Lewis acknowledges, but he has also seen the impact that food can have.
“I’ve seen the difference in kids when they get a meal and when they don’t get a meal, how they behave and how they focus in school,” he said. “So I truly believe that’s all connected.”
Nearly 70% of the city’s 271 homicides last year occurred in low income census tracts without access to a grocery store or supermarket for at least half a mile, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of federal data and police reports.
Fifty-two of the killings occurred in just eight census tracts on the north side of the city with no grocery store for a mile.
St. Louis leads the state in gun violence and for most of the past decade ranked No. 1 for food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to healthy food.
But it’s not just an urban problem. Southeastern counties in or near Missouri’s Bootheel region currently lead the state in food insecurity, federal data show. And four of the 10 counties with the highest rates of gun deaths sit in the far southeastern corner of the state: Wayne, Reynolds, Pemiscot and Carter.
Food insecurity across an entire community can lead to higher rates of health problems, including mental health, according to researchers. That long-term stress can increase suicides and confrontations that lead to gun violence.
Scarcity of fresh and healthy food in communities is a critical public health issue, said Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the St. Louis City Department of Health.
“It’s not just about interrupting acts of violence or preventing acts of violence, but it’s really about creating change in the trajectory of the lives of the individuals that are considered high-risk in those communities,” he said. “Essential wraparound services — such as mental and behavioral health, utility assistance, mortgage and rental assistance and food — those are some of the things that a lot of people oftentimes take for granted and are really the key things that are necessary to change the environment for individuals.”
A few years ago, Lewis decided he could be part of the solution.
“A lightbulb went off in my head,” he said. “There’s a need here, a demand here, so why can’t I be the one that supplies it?”
Other urban farmers had the same idea.
A grassroots ecosystem of Black urban growers, farmers markets, entrepreneurs and community leaders has sprung up in St. Louis to increase production and access to affordable fresh produce in their communities. Their mission: to create a self-sustaining and economically beneficial food infrastructure for residents.
They’re tilling and planting vacant lots, backyards and school gardens. Their fresh produce is going to community-owned businesses and families in need. And they’re finding ways to fund and train the next generation of farmers and entrepreneurs from within their neighborhoods.
Freshman state Rep. Kimberly Ann Collins, a Democrat whose district includes part of north St. Louis, introduced a bill to directly aid the efforts of the urban farmers in her district.
The bill created a tax incentive and financial support for growers converting vacant lots into gardens. Recent St. Louis Land Redevelopment Authority data shows that about 96% of vacant lots for rent or sale are found in eight wards spanning the northern half of the city.
For Collins, a resident of the Ville neighborhood, this issue hits close to home.
“I have the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, right here in the city of St. Louis, just because of where we live, because we don’t have access to fresh food,” Collins said.
“The convenience stores that are in our neighborhoods don’t have the apples and bananas; the convenience stores in our neighborhoods have all of the processed foods that you can get.”
The measure sailed unopposed through the Missouri House’s Agricultural Policy Committee — a Republican dominated body. No one from either party opposed the bill.
The choice to support the bill was not difficult, said Rep. Don Rone, a Portageville Republican, and chair of the committee.
“When you did the math on the size of the lots and everything, there was over 400 acres of vacant lots in the city of St. Louis,” he said. “So this would enable those people, in those neighborhoods, to raise their own vegetables and have a source for fresh vegetables that they would normally not have. And it would absolutely improve the looks of the city also — it’s basically a no-brainer.”
However, the measure died on the last day of the regular legislative session when Senate Republicans refused to return to the floor to vote on remaining bills.
“We will get it across the finish line if the other end of the building does their job next year,” Rone said. “It will come through my committee again, it will pass. I will tell you it will pass unanimously because everybody is for it.”
But the growers at work in St. Louis aren’t waiting for the state to act.
Same store, different food
Farming wasn’t something Lewis planned to get into.
For a decade he taught physical education in St. Louis schools, until a run-in with the stark inequality of food access in the city changed the trajectory of his life.
In 2017, he went to his nearest grocery store — a mile from his home — to buy the ingredients for a vegan meal. But he didn’t find what he wanted.
“I wasn’t really happy with what I saw, there wasn’t a good variety to pick from,” he said. “It (the produce) actually looked kind of sickening.”
He traveled a little farther from his home to another location of the same grocery store chain. The quality and quantity of fresh produce there was slightly better, but not by much. So, he drove even farther out of the city into the suburbs of West St. Louis County.
The farther from his home he went, the better the quality of food.
“It was a shock,” he said. “Why does the same grocery store look totally different the further, deeper you go into the suburbs than when you’re in the inner city where food deserts or food apartheids are at? That was a problem.”
His solution? First he planted a garden in his backyard. Then Lewis, 38, quit his job and became a farmer.
From expanding his garden to vacant lots across the street, to leasing larger plots of land on Shackelford Road and elsewhere, Lewis expanded his operation to grow food full time.
Financing from grants have helped, Lewis said, and last year he produced 200,000 pounds of produce.
He expanded his business by selling subscriptions to customers who, for a total cost of about $500, receive weekly deliveries from his farm during a three-month growing season.
About 20 customers have signed up so far, he said.
For every five subscriptions he sells, he donates one to a family in need. Everything he grows in his first garden by his home, he says, he gives away to people in his community.
His neighborhood, Kingsway West, a mile north of Delmar Boulevard, is considered food insecure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because there is no supermarket within a half-mile. Instead, it is surrounded by corner stores and gas stations.
Most of the city’s food insecure neighborhoods are north of Delmar.
Eight of the 10 census tracts without a grocery store within a mile were in the north, federal data from 2019 showed.
The “Delmar Divide” — a line along Delmar Boulevard that cuts the city north and south along racial and economic lines — is a key to understanding where and why food insecurity is concentrated, said Jessica Meyers, project director at the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission.
“North of that, we see areas that have had systematic disadvantages, whether it’s redlining or closing of businesses,” she said. “Policies that have kind of gutted these neighborhoods, including taking away access to healthy and nutritious food.”
What Lewis found in grocery stores in St. Louis also has been true in Kansas City, a Star report in 2018 found. Many stores east of Troost Avenue lack healthy food, so residents often had to travel to more affluent areas in the western half of the city to find fresh produce.
Helping Black farmers
Anyone driving through the Walnut Park East neighborhood in St. Louis might miss the clearing at the intersection with rows of purple cabbage, spinach and newly sprouting beets hidden by tall grass. But it’s where you can find Tosha Phonix almost every day during the spring and summer growing season.
On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-May, Phonix repeated her daily ritual: checking in on her vegetable garden on a vacant lot in the northwest St. Louis neighborhood.
Phonix’s work in food justice started almost a decade ago. However, it wasn’t until she started as the food justice organizer with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 2018 that she saw the impact she could have, she said.
Last year, she left her job with the coalition to co-launch EVOLVE, where her primary role is to raise grant dollars to help Black farmers like Lewis throughout the state get the financing and equipment they need to jump-start their own growing ventures.
“I realized that, one, there was no food justice movement here in St. Louis. And then two, that Black farmers and growers weren’t getting the resources they needed to grow food for their communities,” she said. “So I kind of took on the fight for, you know, resources and getting resources to Black farmers and growers in north city and throughout the Missouri region.”
The concentration of food inequity in certain communities does not happen by accident, she said. Disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, as well as the difficulty Black farmers have had getting the capital to start farming, has exacerbated the situation in St. Louis, Phonix said.
Food justice activists call the disparities in food access a “food apartheid” — a term coined by Black activists and farmers to describe the root causes that leave communities unable to access fresh, healthy foods — rejecting the passive phrase “food desert.”
Walnut Park East, where Phonix’s garden is located, is a low income census tract where a significant number of residents don’t have access to a supermarket for at least one mile. The corner stores and markets in the community are stocked with packaged and processed foods, with the produce section often consisting of small bins, limited variety and aged produce.
The neighborhood has also struggled with high rates of gun violence.
In 2020, the area reported 10 homicides, according to St. Louis Police Department data. Adjacent Walnut Park West tied another neighborhood in the city for the highest number of homicides last year at 15.
The gun violence in the neighborhoods has gotten worse in recent years, residents said, with sounds of gunshots and instances of firearm violence dramatically increasing.
Police data reflects their observations. In 2015, Walnut Park East and Walnut Park West reported a combined seven homicides.
The city’s department of health launched an anti-violence program targeting the Walnut Park neighborhood in January. Preliminary data shows that firearm homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies are on track to be reduced by 50% since the program’s start, said Echols, the city health department director.
Farmers markets, mobile providers
Across the city from Phonix’s garden in the Hyde Park neighborhood, nestled against Interstate 70, one of the only weekly farmers markets in north St. Louis launched in May.
What started as one urban farmer and a couple of vendors a month ago has grown to include multiple produce stands, artisans, a bi-weekly yoga class and stretching exercises on the lawn, said Fatimah Muhammad, founder and chair of the Hyde Park neighborhood association.
A retired business woman who moved from St. Louis County to the north city neighborhood to work in the community, Muhammad launched the weekly market as a way for local growers to make a profit by selling their goods, while providing fresh produce to the community at affordable prices.
The historic neighborhood shows the typical signs of a community that has lost residents throughout the decades: vacant homes and closing schools. And as the population decreased, the disinvestment in the community grew, so when grocery stores closed, they didn’t re-open, said Muhammad.
For her, the farmers market also acts as a way to rebuild the community bonds that have disintegrated over the years. Those bonds can deter crime and make the neighborhood safer.
“I mean, if you go back to childhood…if I did something five blocks away, by the time I got home, my mother knew because the neighbors knew who I was and who my parents were,” she said. “And so that communication is one of the biggest voids that we’re missing in urban communities.”
But the lack of access to affordable fresh, healthy food is not isolated to a couple of neighborhoods in the city, it’s widespread.
Of all census tracts in St. Louis, about half are considered food insecure, without access to a supermarket or grocery store for at least half a mile.
One nonprofit, St. Louis MetroMarket, is trying to bridge the gap with its mobile market. In six years, it has become a staple in many St. Louis neighborhoods that lack access to fresh produce. Fully stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables and supplemented by items like Amish honey from Bowling Green, in Pike County, the bus is effectively a small community grocer on wheels.
Their stops are intentionally designed to be in areas without access to a grocery store or supermarket for miles, said Quinton Ward, executive director.
“With the lack of access, you’re talking about this larger thing — you’re talking about systems that have not worked in a very long time,” Ward said. “What is the walking distance between yourself and a grocery store? But then, also, there’s the affordability aspect — you can have multiple grocery stores around you, but if you don’t have the resources to be able to buy those things, it doesn’t matter because you’re priced out.”
The nonprofit’s staff regularly go in person to hand-select fruits and vegetables from wholesale providers, making it possible to sell items at a reduced price. For example, a bunch of kale is sold for about 50 cents.
City, state help
For urban farms to prosper and make an impact in St. Louis, they’ll need investment from city and state officials, advocates said.
The state legislature passed several bills related to food insecurity in the past session, two of which were sponsored by Rep. Ian Mackey, a Democrat from St. Louis.
One of his bills extended a pilot program that allowed SNAP recipients to use their benefits at participating farmers’ markets — a program Mackey said was immensely successful with close to $1 million utilized over three years.
Another bill established a Food Security Task Force, a group with 22 members — composed of academics, food advocates, representatives from faith-based institutions and food retailers — that would study the causes, impact and solutions for food insecurity throughout the state.
The legislation is still waiting to be signed by the governor, who has until Aug. 28 to either sign or veto it, before it defaults to law.
“We really want to connect the dots between our urban poverty and our rural poverty and try to figure out, you know, what other states are doing,” Mackey said. “The states that border us, even the red states, don’t suffer with this quite to the extent that we do.”
Missouri follows only Arkansas as the most food insecure state in the region, according to Feeding America’s 2019 data.
Other bills did not make it to the governor’s desk, including Collins’ push to incentivize gardens in vacant lots and a measure to offer tax credits to businesses willing to reopen grocery stores that closed in food deserts.
Tackling food insecurity can’t happen in a vacuum, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, whose district covers St. Louis and north St. Louis County and who has supported bills that deal with both gun violence and food insecurity.
“In St. Louis, we don’t have the luxury of dividing our social problems into neat categories such as food insecurity, housing discrimination, gun violence, wage stagnation, incarceration, or climate destruction,” she said. “Our communities are impacted by all of it, and all of the issues feed into one another.”
This story is part of a series The Kansas City Star and its partners across the state are producing this year focusing on public health issues that contribute to gun violence. These include income, housing, food security, schools and living environments.
The effort is undertaken as part of the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a two-year, statewide solutions journalism collaboration supported by the nonprofits Report for America and the Missouri Foundation for Health. The Star has partnered in the project with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Springfield News-Leader and The Missouri Independent.
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: [email protected].
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