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Farm-to-table for free: The Lawrence farmer and activist making food a public work

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Hunger is an important issue nationwide, and Douglas County is no exception, with more than 15,000 residents being food insecure. But the government’s traditional approach to hunger has funded merely the consumption — not the production — of food. 

Pantaleon Florez III, a local farmer and food justice activist, is planting the seeds for a new approach.

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Florez has launched the Peoples’ Century Farm project, a solution that could institute food as a public work nationwide, feeding people in need with fresh produce and extending land equity to BIPOC farmers. The Peoples’ Century Farm has also drawn the attention of the local food bank and government sustainability office.

Here’s how it would work: The Peoples’ Century Farm would employ 16 BIPOC food systems workers who are specialists across fields such as vegetable production, orchard work, and logistics. The workers would produce farm-fresh foods and prepare meals for local communities that are currently surviving food apartheid, in collaboration with mutual aid organizations and nonprofits.

“With 12 to 16 farmers as actual government workers, each Peoples’ Century Farm could produce between $5 to $6 million worth of food a year,” Florez says. “If we need to talk about return on investment, this is 500-600% ROI on a public project. You could never find a housing project or anything else that gives back like that.”

In the 2020 Farm Bill, the United States pumped $120 billion into agriculture. Just 4.3% of that budget could put a Peoples’ Century Farm in every state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, funding a total of 52, $100-million BIPOC farm endowments to produce free food, Florez says.

“Just 5 billion of those dollars could put a Peoples’ Century Farm in all these places across the country, and that just means funding them one time at that amount. That’s $100 million farm endowments we’re talking about, for a million-dollar operating budget per year, which would help these farms last and continue producing food for 100 years.”

But to understand the true impact of this program, we have to get to the roots of why it’s needed.

Identifying the need

Florez is the owner of Maseualkualli Farms, a no-till, no-fossil-fuel organic fruit and vegetable farm in Lawrence. As he’s gotten his hands dirty with the farming profession, Florez has become increasingly familiar with agricultural, land and food systems. They’re all connected by one goal — not necessarily feeding people, but instead maximizing profits for large corporations — and it’s a system built on inequity.

This inequity is especially stark here at home. BIPOC residents in Lawrence are 3.6 times more likely to live in poverty than white residents — the eighth highest racial poverty gap among 40 benchmark cities listed in a report from Ernst & Young, a firm the City of Lawrence hired to consult on an economic development strategy in 2020.

Jordan Winter / The Lawrence Times Maseualkualli Farms is located at one of Lawrence’s Common Ground incubator sites. The program was established by the City of Lawrence to lease under-utilized properties to residents for free or at a very low cost, eliminating land ownership as a barrier to accessing gardening and fresh-grown produce.

This inequity has a clear tie to hunger and access to healthy foods. The CDC reports that only 1 in 10 American adults meets the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. That number is even smaller for low-income folks, which disproportionately include people of color.

But not only would the Peoples’ Century Farm feed more BIPOC folks in need, it would also provide a pathway to land equity. BIPOC producers make up less than 2% of farm owners. This is a direct result of racist land ownership and lending practices that have ousted people of color, especially Indigenous folks forcibly removed from the land they stewarded for millenia.

“That’s clearly by design,” Florez says. “The USDA has been discriminatory since its beginning. The largest civil rights payout in U.S. history is an agriculture case, Pigford v. Glickman, about bad lending to Black farmers that caused them to take out a bunch of money, buy land and then lose it through foreclosure, like clockwork. That’s one of the mechanisms that has shut BIPOC out of agriculture, so this would be an equity project to hire BIPOC farmers specifically.”

Working with the community

Florez is bringing the Peoples’ Century Farm to life by collaborating with community partners that share the same mission. One of the top organizations fighting hunger locally is Just Food, the food, basic needs, and diaper bank of Douglas County.

The Just Food team is focused on ending hunger not only by feeding people, but also by providing education initiatives such as cooking classes and community events, which help people become self-sufficient and reduce barriers to health and well-being.

Ryan Bowersox, Just Food’s director of marketing and outreach, says this kind of systemic approach is what makes the Peoples’ Century Farm plan so effective.

“The pandemic illustrated so many failures in our social systems. Disruptions in our food supply chain will always affect people who are living in poverty or on the edge,” she says. “People in poverty still have to pay for their food, but that means they’re giving things up in other places. The system is set up to manage hunger and not to solve hunger.”

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Bowersox has worked in the food industries for 15 years. And as someone who has seen the joys of Just Food’s shoppers picking up fresh produce from the shelves, she’s become an outspoken supporter of Florez’s proposal to make food a public work.

“I can’t think of a better thing to offer families — especially those who have kids that will grow up in this community — fresh and beautiful produce that they learn to love, and for them to learn to love growing and cooking food, too. I work in this field, and I don’t know of anything else better,” Bowersox says.

Making farm-to-table free would give low-income folks the freedom to have the “firsts,” not just the “seconds,” from food recovery. It could also bring a bounty of other benefits, from healthier lifestyles to a healthier climate.

The Douglas County Sustainability Office, which has outlined a Food System Plan to improve food security and reduce food waste in Douglas County, is another partner on the Peoples’ Century Farm. Florez first proposed this project to the city last fall. Kim Criner Ritchie, the Sustainability Office’s sustainability and food systems analyst, says it’s a perfect fit with the work they’re already doing.

“This groundbreaking project amplifies several values expressed by the Douglas County community in the creation of the Food System Plan, including equitable access to healthy foods, establishment of high-quality food sector jobs, food system and farming inclusion, and responsible stewardship of our valuable agriculture soils,” Criner Ritchie says. “Our office looks forward to supporting the growth of partnerships that may see this project forward.”

Making it happen

The next U.S. Farm Bill is coming in 2023. Since its drafting is already underway, Florez is racing against the clock for critical funding. Florez is looking for community support on getting that funding, whether that’s writing grants or rallying political support on the local, state, or federal level.

“Right now, we’re really just trying to find grants to pilot it. I may have found one through the USDA that could get us a five-year, $10-million grant, so we could pilot this program in Wichita and one here in Lawrence, so we could get proof of concept in two places,” Florez says.

This is a project for the community; Florez also wants it to be by the community. He’s currently planning to launch a letter-writing campaign or petition so he can collect signatures from all the Lawrence residents who want the idea to happen.

“I want to take that to the lawmakers so they can see all the people from Lawrence who want this to come here,” he says. “That will be powerful when it comes to putting dollars behind it and actually funding it sustainably over the long term.”

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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.

Check out her work at jrdnwntr.com. See more of her work for the Times here.

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