‘We can’t wait for corporations to provide food for us’
Danielle Guerin farms three plots of land in Indianapolis with her Soul Food Project, and seeks to teach kids the craft and help solve food deserts.
Robert Scheer, Indianapolis Star
Rural landscapes blanketed with row crops and pastures peppered with faded red barns are the stereotypical scenes of Indiana agriculture.
But a new type of farming is taking root in a far different setting — crops growing amid bustling streets, residential neighborhoods and commercial districts.
These urban farms are tucked into inconspicuous vacant lots, oases where leafy greens and vegetables flourish in areas once overgrown and strewn with trash. In many cases, the hidden gems provide a rejuvenating source of healthy foods in areas where grocers and supermarkets may be sparse.
Danielle Guerin, an Indianapolis native who took a roundabout route to growing food in the city, is one of the new breed of farmers. She’s well on her way to helping her community — and, hopefully, inspiring a new generation of urban farmers.
On a warm summer morning, Guerin greeted a handful of interns to a garden at a cleared residential lot just north of the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood on Temple Ave. This is one of three urban gardens Guerin operates under her nonprofit, Soul Food Project Indy.
Farming wasn’t part of the plan when Guerin was growing up in Martindale-Brightwood. Instead, she studied business with a focus on entrepreneurship while completing her undergraduate degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.
When she came back home after graduating in 2017, however, Guerin began to struggle with depression and anxiety. She developed an eating disorder.
“I was feeling lost in my life at that point,” she said.
Her friends noticed. Some of them encouraged Guerin to join them volunteering at a community garden. Her love of the work blossomed, and she found a new path that she has followed with an intense focus.
Guerin enrolled in a graduate program at Indiana University in Bloomington to study food sustainability and sustainable development under the school’s public and environmental affairs program.
The program opened a new world to Guerin. She volunteered with the Peace Corps in West Africa, where she focused on food insecurity. It was half a world away from home that it dawned on Guerin: She, too, had lived in a food desert, where access to fresh and nutritious foods is scarce, especially for people without access to private vehicles. She just hadn’t understood it at the time.
This realization ignited a new passion for Guerin. Shortly after returning to the U.S., she began an apprenticeship with Growing Places Indy, an urban gardening organization that operates three gardens across the city.
During the apprenticeship, she enrolled in Purdue University Extension’s 6-month urban agriculture course that taught participants how to start a farm. While taking the course, Guerin began reaching out to community organizations around her neighborhood that might know of any empty lots where she could build a garden.
She got a hit: A vacant lot of North Temple Avenue she could use for free to kick off her first urban gardening project.
The overgrown plot had been a community garden back around 2010, but it had been abandoned for a few years. Beginning in the spring of 2018, Guerin set out by herself to begin clearing the lot and building raised beds to put together a new community garden. It took some heavy weeding and lots of compost, but she had farmed with the Peace Corps and knew what it took to succeed.
“My goal was to get something in the ground,” Guerin said. “Grow something and see what happens and go from there.”
She was still attending the urban ag course at Purdue when the professor connected her with a former student who managed a garden at Carriage House East apartments. The garden also served as a youth program, Youth Grow Indy, which gave neighborhood kids an opportunity to learn about gardening and urban agriculture. When she learned the manager could no longer run the program, Guerin suddenly had a second farm.
Guerin ran the two farms until 2020, when her family reached out to her about another lot on Sheldon Street in her old neighborhood, Martindale-Brightwood.
At the gardens
On a warm July morning at the Temple Avenue site, Guerin gathered the interns — teens on summer break — for a quick meeting before starting the day’s work.
The garden’s four long rows grow perpendicular to the street. Raised beds hold berries, sweet potatoes and compost. Chickens peck and scratch for food in an enclosure near the back of the property. Nearby are a holding shed and a grouping of picnic tables where Guerin occasionally offers community workshops on various gardening techniques.
The chores began with weeding and cleaning out the carrot and garlic beds so other crops can be planted. There also was swiss chard and other greens to pick.
The youth programming is a big part of her Soul Food Project.
Guerin employs about a dozen kids each year and offers them equitable pay for their work. She’s passionate about paying people fairly and providing them with valuable experiences throughout the summer. That includes providing hands-on experience operating the gardens and preparing the produce for market. Guerin also teaches interns about food sovereignty, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. They volunteer at food banks. She also take the interns to college visits and on field trips to other agricultural operations.
“It’s good for them to learn and have those experiences,” she said.
Siblings Dominique and Didier Vohito are part of Guerin’s internship program. This is their second year. Both are ambitious with Dominique planning on attending medical school and Didier wanting to pursue a law degree.
Dider said working in the gardens and helping the community gives him a refreshing feeling. He was reluctant at first when their mom first suggested it, but he said he is happy he gave it a chance.
Guerin will sometimes gather the interns for Real Talk, a time when she teaches the interns about properly handling money, or the different opportunities that exist. This is Bryanna Stowe’s favorite part.
Stowe, 14, has been interning for Guerin for two years and is working on a project to plant flowers at her house. She said the hardest part is working out in the heat.
This year is Corey Brooks’ third year interning with Guerin. Brooks went about his work harvesting collard greens under the warming sun with quiet and patience. He, like Guerin, has an entrepreneurial spirit. One day, he wants to operate his own clothing brand designing the graphics himself. He’s an artist and brings a determined effort even to working in the dirt.
Guerin hopes the efforts and hard work are a valuable experience that will extend beyond the garden beds and into each teens’ chosen career. She compliments this learned work ethic with advice on financial literacy and other real world issues for the interns to internalize and carry with them as they explore their own futures.
“When you feel like quitting,” Brooks said, “don’t quit.”
Once the produce was gathered at Temple Avenue, Guerin and the teens headed to the site on Sheldon.
The Martindale-Brightwood site is larger than Temple Avenue’s and holds a converted shipping container. Raised beds line the southern side of the property. Some of the lumber holding in the soil is old and weathered, but the interns build new frames as needed. On the north, dozens of rows of produce stretch the across property with tall trellises strung up to hold large vining plants.
The centerpiece on the Sheldon Street site is the converted shipping container. A portable AC unit sticks out of the container and a added lean-to constructed from 2x4s and other treated lumber covers a production table where the gardeners prepare produce next to a whiteboard marking the day’s tasks.
Jessalyn Simmons, Soul Food Project Indy’s new farming operations manager, built the group a walk-in cooler housed in the container.
Simmons works as a substitute teacher in Union County during the school year and has spent her life gardening. She stays with a friend in Carmel during the week now to work with Guerin. Simmons said she is extremely proud of her work on the cooler. Her husband was so impressed with it, he asked if she could recreate one in their garage.
Soul Food Project has exceeded her expectations, she said. She’s never encountered interactions between the boss and employees as meaningful as shared by Guerin and the youth.
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“I’m truly grateful for the opportunity she provides the kids,” Simmons said. “There’s no complaining. We find stuff for them that makes a good work environment, but fun as well. They get the opportunity to understand the value of expectations, to understand a good work ethic.”
Soul Food Project is largely grant funded, and the results so far are promising. The program keeps growing, and research shows urban garden’s such as Guerin’s are much needed in Indy.
Urban gardening background
More than 200,000 Indy residents live in a food desert, according to the Indiana Community Food Access Coalition. This so-called desert happens when more than 33% of an urban population lives a mile or more from a grocery store.
These deserts “unfairly target people of color,” the coalition’s website says, and Black residents in Marion County are most likely to live in them after white flight hit the neighborhoods decades ago.
This shift in demographics helped turn the neighborhoods into food deserts, which “can compromise the health of local residents and neighborhood quality,” according to a 2009 Center for Public Environmental Oversight study focused on urban farming in Indy.
The historic presence of industrial sites compounded the difficulties in these neighborhoods.
In Martindale-Brightwood, industrial operations contaminated the soils with lead, leading to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup that removed the heavy metal at 101 properties including a playground and daycare.
Even with cleanup efforts complete, Guerin had to layer mulch, a foot thick, on top of the soils at the Sheldon Street site. But that wasn’t all. She added a layer of cardboard on top of the mulch, followed by another layer of straw and finally added eight inches of topsoil.
Purdue University has tested the new ground and has yet to find high levels of lead anywhere, Guerin said. Even Cornell came to test to make sure the lead levels were within standard and found that fruiting crops and produce that is harvested high enough away from the soil were also safe.
Still, there are some crops that just cannot be grown there. Carrots, for instance, or any root crops that may breech past the barrier Guerin placed.
Revitalized urban gardens, like Guerin’s, can be an avenue for neighborhood success, the CPEO report says:
“By stabilizing vacant lots, by reusing brownfields, by taking surplus land out of the real estate stream, and by providing healthy food to low-income residents, urban farming can advance the cause of environmental justice and become a vital part of the fabric of urban neighborhoods.”
As Guerin and her interns work through the summer, she is looking to the future. She hopes to soon expand her youth program and offer an apprentice program for adults to focus on job training.
“Teens go to college and might not want to farm,” Guerin said. “I’m figuring out a way to set up a system where the people who want to stay after high school can stay and apprentice for the farm.”
That also means acquiring more space.
Guerin currently rents the home next to one of the gardens and would love to have an office space.
Soul Food Project Indy sells at local farmers markets and is now expanding by offering produce on Market Wagon, which operates an online store where locally grown foods are delivered to customers’ doorsteps.
Finding Soul Food Project Indy
Guerin and the interns travel to local markets on the weekends, offering the fresh-picked produce. Soul Food Project Indy also offers on-farm produce pickups on Thursday from 4-6:30 p.m. at 2436 Sheldon Street.
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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