August 30, 2018

By Susan White ’05

Owen Lynch harbors a “crazy” idea – one that just might help eliminate the food deserts scattered throughout South Dallas. Driving through the impoverished area surrounding the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, Lynch points out abandoned lots and vacant dirt areas under nearby freeways that hold possibilities as future community gardens.

“One of the unexpected assets of a food desert is the large availability of property or lots for farming and food system development,” Lynch says. “These properties are at best eyesores detracting from their neighborhood’s home values, but at worst they are a breeding ground for vermin, wild dogs and other negative neighborhood effects.”

Lynch is associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs in Meadows School of the Arts and a senior research fellow in SMU’s Hunt Institute for Humanity and Engineering. But he and his Hunt Institute colleagues are looking at a bigger picture for South Dallas, advocating for something more sustainable than community gardens through an extensive food production system.

“Each lot could become part of a functioning food system by providing the city with a local, sustainable food source and creating jobs for the immediate community,” he says. “There is a large amount of unemployed or underemployed people and youth in these local communities who could gain employment and training within these urban farms.”

South Dallas is one of the largest food deserts in the country, Lynch says. Urban food deserts are short on fresh food providers, especially fruits and vegetables; instead they are rife with quick marts selling processed foods heavy in sugar and filled with fats. In South Dallas many residents live at least a mile from a grocery store and don’t always have access to ready transportation to drive farther.

SUSTAINING COMMUNITY GARDENS

Lynch, who also serves as president of the nonprofit, urban farm consulting agency Get Healthy Dallas, and the Hunt Institute took the first step toward reducing the gap in available healthy food sources by establishing the Seedling Farm, dedicated at the MLK Freedom Garden last November, in collaboration with numerous local urban farm organizations. The Seedling Farm aims to overcome some of the barriers to successful local agricultural production and help improve the health of South Dallas residents.

During a visit to the Seedling Farm on a cool but sunny April morning, manager and horticulturalist Tyrone Day shows off the seedlings that have sprouted in the recently built greenhouse and soon will be transferred to local private and community gardens and farmers markets. The greenhouse packs in up to 4,000 4-inch plants started from seedlings that will grow into a variety of vegetables ranging from asparagus to zucchini, as well as herbs such as cilantro, basil and thyme.

Plans are to produce 20,000 seedlings each year through all four seasons to sell at a discount to area residents who grow their own produce. Providing seedlings is an important factor. “The process of going from a seed to a seedling is the most vulnerable stage in a plant’s life,” Day says. “At the farm, we raise them in controlled conditions with constant monitoring, and also prepare them for transportation to community and home gardens.” Jump-starting gardens by planting viable young seedlings means the plants are more likely to survive, mature faster and produce fruits or vegetables more quickly, he adds.

GROWING JOBS AS WELL

Numerous small community gardens exist throughout South Dallas. The challenge is to ensure that such gardens are sustainable and that growers are connected to resources that will help them be successful. “Research shows that community gardens can achieve bigger gains if the gardeners have access to local experts and seedlings to better manage their gardens,” Lynch says. “That is a big part of what the Seedling Farm is about: to encourage, support and – if needed – teach local residents how to get the most from their urban gardens.”

Tyrone Day and the Seedling Farm serve as a resource for urban farmers by offering information on the best type of plants for their gardens and growing the seeds that they choose until the seedlings are ready for planting. Gardeners then pick up the young plants and transfer them to their own gardens, using the resulting crops for themselves or sharing with the community.

SMU alumnus DeVincent Martin ’18 set out to connect local gardeners to such resources. Martin, who earned a master’s degree in sustainability and development from SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering in May, conducted research for a capstone project to map the location of these community gardens. But Martin, who has family roots in South Dallas, learned that gathering data by knocking on doors and asking questions was difficult in an area where local residents are wary of outsiders.

Martin saw firsthand the benefits of the South Dallas gardens as he conducted his research. “There, the gardens are an asset, not a hobby,” he says. “They are helping people live. I watched kids get off the school bus and stop by these gardens for produce to bring home for dinner.”

Part of the Seedling Farm initiative also is to provide jobs for underemployed individuals. Day earned his horticultural degree from Trinity Valley Community College while incarcerated in prison. In 1989 he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and spent the next 26 years as an inmate of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. While there he oversaw five large greenhouses that supplied hundreds of thousands of vegetables to the TDCJ.

After he was released in 2016 under the Innocence Project, he began to work with Miles of Freedom, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders transition from prison to the community and the workforce. Day met Lynch at the MLK Freedom Garden and began building the Seedling Farm greenhouse in June 2017. Lynch saw that Day, with his horticultural skills, was a natural fit as the manager.

Day also manages the garden at the Austin Street Center (ASC), an emergency shelter for the homeless in Dallas, and trains others to care for the vegetation and flowers in the New Hope Garden at ASC, as well as teach them how to fertilize with organic products and to use the correct amount of water. Karen Milam, office manager and grant writer for ASC, says for her lunch hour she enjoys sitting in the garden, which was built by members of a Leadership Dallas class. The vegetables are harvested by volunteers and supplement the meals provided by various churches to the ASC. While at the garden, Day plucked a large, ripe head of cabbage and pulled off the leaves to share with visitors who ate them on the spot. Lynch delivered the cabbage to the center’s cook, who planned to use it in coleslaw for lunch that day.

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Lynch involved several of his corporate communication students in the development of the Seedling Farm. Caroline Davis, a senior majoring in corporate communication and public affairs and public relations and strategic communication, knew little about food deserts until taking several courses from Lynch. She helped plan and coordinate the launch of the Seedling Farm, and asked area residents about their food knowledge and access to various foods, particularly vegetables. “The Seedling Farm is about much more than food for these communities and farmers,” Davis says. “Community members have the chance to receive the necessary education and training to co-develop a self-sustaining resource.”

Sara Langone ’17, who received degrees in political science and corporate communication and public affairs from SMU, and DeAngelo Garner ’18, who graduated in May with degrees in organizational communications and public relations with a minor in Spanish, conducted a survey with the area residents on the need for the Seedling Farm. Garner, who will begin a master’s degree in business analytics in fall 2018 at Cox School of Business, says the experience helped drive him toward his interest in data analytics.

“It was eye opening seeing the human aspect of statistical information that I had previously studied,” he says. “Having the hands-on experience humanized the very real problems that residents of South and West Dallas experience.”

Lynch, who was designated a 2018 Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Fellow, is moving to Rhode Island where his wife has a job, but will return weekly to Dallas to teach at SMU and continue to build on the Seedling Farm initiative. He emphasizes that a local food production system requires well-organized distribution systems, which includes support from community foundations, nonprofits and experts. And investment in local micro-urban farms requires upfront capital and experience to design, build and maintain, but the payoff is huge. Micro-food systems have the potential to provide innovative and economical solutions to reducing food poverty and unemployment, Lynch adds.

“Hundreds of micro-farms, community gardens, personal gardens, greenhouses or even small raised beds can be linked into a vibrant food chain providing sustainable fresh local produce to the DFW market.”

A “crazy” idea that is blooming where it’s planted.