As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my favorite local non-profits is the urban farming education and advocacy organization Growing Hope. And, as they still have a ticket or two available for the big fundraiser this weekend at their new Michigan Avenue facility, I thought that now might be a good time to check in with them and find out what they’re up to. Following, you’ll find my interview with Growing Hope’s Executive Director Amanda Edmonds. If you like what she has to say, I’d appreciate it if you’d consider buying a ticker or two for Sunday. If you’re lucky, you may even end up eating delicious food at the same table as Linette and me.
MARK: So, how are things going at Growing Hope?
AMANDA: It’s great now that we’re finally moved into the Growing Hope Center (as of April). We can finally begin to focus more intently on our work, and our impact, and less on managing construction, which has been my role for the last five years. Our new home — which we already feel cramped in, since our staff has continued to expand (including paid staff, Americorps volunteers, interns, youth employees, et al) — is great, and has exactly the home-y feel we were hoping for. People stop in all the time who don’t know us. People who live in the neighborhood just stop in to say hi. People driving by stop in, curious to learn more. People drop in just to ask a quick question. So, just that presence on Michigan Avenue alone has allowed us increase our reach and impact.
Now that we’re situated in the Growing Hope Center, it’s much easier to lend books from our library and tools to Growing GardensGrowing members. And we even lend canning equipment now! And having our own meeting/teaching space is awesome.
We’ve expanded our summer youth programs, and, this summer, we held garden and nutrition-based camps at the Boys & Girls Club, in West Willow, and at Parkridge, with our teen interns acting as peer educators. And those interns also started their bicycle-powered smoothie business.
The big exciting news (exciting to me, at least) is that we’ve just started a year-long strategic planning process to chart the next several years for Growing Hope. We’ve got a bunch of focus groups coming up, and we’ll will be inviting community members to give voice in those, as well as thought one-on-one interviews and surveys… Anyone interested in learning about any of those, or giving input, can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other big exciting news is that we’re working to expand our social enterprises, and thus our ability to earn our own revenue, create more jobs, etc. I’ve been in a fellowship in Detroit called Enterprising Health since June, which is for social entrepreneurs who are working to alleviate health disparities, and we’ve been working on business planning (that also includes a component of community voice, planning for impact, etc). We’ve got a survey right now we welcome anyone near or far to take. You can find it here.
MARK: And can you tell us a bit about what you’ve got going on this Sunday?
AMANDA: This Sunday is the last of three Chefs in the Garden amazing dinners. We’ve got three chefs — the two wild women of Bona Sera, and Brandon Johns of Grange — cooking up deliciousness right on our urban farm. The first two dinners (featuring Chefs Emil Boch of From the Hearth Food & Kim Nichols of Harvest Kitchen in August, and Chefs Silvio Medoro of Silvio’s Organic Ristorante & Pizzeria and Benjamin Meyer of Iridescence) were amazing and sold out, and there are fewer then five tickets remaining for this Sunday’s event! Hopefully we’ll schedule more.
MARK: How did the Chefs in the Garden series come about?
AMANDA: Chefs in the Garden is an evolution of our annual fundraising dinner, previously called Hope’s Harvest. There, we had maybe 8 or 9 chefs, all on site, and the event was much larger — maybe 125 guests. We scaled it down, and now we’re having two chefs at once, with more like 50 guests each time. It’s a bit more intimate, and simpler for us to put on. We’ve thrifted enough that we have 50+ sets of dishes, tablecloths, napkins, etc (could still use more silverware!), and we have tables, etc. So, right now, all we need is a tent. By next spring, though, we’ll have another hoophouse up, which will serve as an education and event space, and then we can have dinners in there instead!
MARK: Any big things to note concerning this season at the Downtown Ypsi Farmers’ Market? Any trends that you’re seeing develop? Any lessons learned this year?
AMANDA: The Market has had another record-breaking year, in terms of numbers of vendors, customers, sales, and, most importantly to us, our SNAP (food stamp) sales have continued to break all previous records. There’s no disputing — people of all income levels want healthy food, and, when they have access to it, they’ll buy it! We’ve also been doing food sampling every week, and have finally got our portable four-bin sink, and other equipment in place, so that we can put on full fledged (and officially “food safe”) outdoor cooking demos!
MARK: What should we expect from Growing Hope over the winter?
AMANDA: The strategic planning is one — so folks should stay tuned to give input into that…
We’ve also been doing almost weekly classes, and there are still more of those planned in the next months. We’ll have classes on food preservation, season extension, and more. So folks should come on out for those. And, just tonight, we did an intro two-hour session to our Garden Leadership Training, which trains teams starting, expanding, or reviving community, school, and faith-based gardens. We’ve got another intro session next week. And, we’ve got our training dates set for February for the full course (and we’re offering a Saturday option this time!).
And, of course, we’ll have the winter farmers’ market inside the Corner Brewery. This winter, though, it will be every week instead of every other week. And it will run from Election Day (November 6) through December 18/
And, we’re going to do an online holiday auction again this fall — featuring local services & goods, which hopefully helps support those businesses. We hope that people who don’t win the auctions that they bid on will then go and purchase that item instead. And, we’re taking contributions now. It needs to be something that a gift certificate can be used for, which makes it easier for include in the format of an online auction. Email to email@example.com if you’d like to participate… Oh, and we’re still taking ads for our 2013 wall calendar. You can drop us a line using that same email address.
And we finally got the plant material installed to complete our green roof on our adobe oven structure! Thanks to an Ann Arbor Farm & Garden grant, not only do we have the green roof, but we have plans for a second hoophouse, a solar panel to power our cistern pump, some more accessible pathways through our gardens, and new signage. All of this will be getting in place in the next six months.
I’m spending a lot of time thinking and talking about broader economic and community development in Ypsi through healthy food. I think we (we in the broad sense, not necessarily Growing Hope) have a very real opportunity in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the GHC, and even on Water Street, and I’m working on getting some solid economic analysis in place to further “make the case”. I’m super inspired right now by how Cleveland is taking the lead on this — from some of the best zoning around urban agriculture, to public market revitalization, to pilot urban grazing projects on vacant land, to excellent marketing, to worker-owned co-ops… I was just there at the International Public Markets Conference put on by the Project for Public Spaces, an amazing organization that’s all about place making.
MARK: I imagine the Growing Hope Center is going to be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, so I won’t ask if it’s where you want it to be, but I’m curious to know if it’s coming along the way that you’d anticipated when you first took possession of the property?
AMANDA: I think in many ways it is exactly what we envisioned, and I think over the next year, as we are more and more settled in, get our commercial kitchen certified, get our LEED certification (looking for a volunteer or intern who wants to work on that (http://www.growinghope.net/get_involved/jobs), and are more set up to welcome school field trips, host events for others, etc., that it’ll continue to come to life. When I take the rare moment to step back and reflect, I’m overjoyed.
Our next big phase is going to be getting plans in place and funds raised for solar panels. We could actually be net zero energy, possibly, if we do this, because we already use geothermal for our heating and cooling system. I hope we can find a partner in the green building world who would like to market/use our space to educate around all of the sustainable redevelopment we did. We definitely talk about it during tours, but it’s not our main thing so we don’t do presentations and such about it. We rebuilt our old windows, installed geothermal, used tons of reclaimed materials, maximized insulation, have a 12,000 lb recycled glass plaza, have solar powered parking lot lights, a cistern system we designed, etc, etc…
MARK: How much produce have you generated in the hoop house so far this season?
AMANDA: Oy, I don’t have that number — someone else on my staff does… But we do grow over 1 ton each year on our 1/4 acre… And we’ve increased our wholesale sales this year. Have you had the Growing Hope frittata at the Wolverine? Kevin says it sells out a lot!
MARK: What’s going on in Ypsi schools? How active have you been so far this school year? Are kids coming out to the Center, working on the urban farm, learning about how food makes its was from the farm to table?
AMANDA: During the school year, we mostly do after-school programming. Speaking of which, our Seed 2 Plate club started today! Apparently they did a junk food makeover. They made kale chips and banana ice cream (which is literally frozen banana then put in a blender, and it’s apparently great), and it was a big hit. We do a lot of healthy cooking with these middle schoolers.
MARK: What kinds of new things are you working on for next spring? Any big plans afoot?
AMANDA: The launch of Growing Ventures — our social enterprise division — will be branding some things we already do that help people grow healthy food at home, but will also be offering new things. We’re exploring compost delivery and raised bed installation services, but nothing’s guaranteed yet. We’re working through the financials right now to see what is really feasible.
And there are some top secret things we’re not ready yet to talk about because we’re still working out the details.
MARK: How close are you to making your last fundraising goal?
AMANDA: For the Growing Hope Center, in the last five years we’ve raised just about $700,000 in cash, grants, pledges, and in-kind support… It’s kind of overwhelming to think that we’ve done that at the same time as raising our annual operating budget from scratch each year. (No wonder I feel so tired.) And as you know, this has been through very grassroots, one-gift-at-a-time contributions and amazing in-kind contributions. To pay off the entire debt on the building, finish up things like solar panels, accessible pathways, et al, and pay off other construction debt (not a giant amount, but some), we’ve still got about $250,000 to go.
So, by meeting the goal of the challenge grant we got last fall (which we just completed!!!), and getting our Certificate of Occupancy and moving in, we’ve successfully completed the first phases of our capital campaign! It’s very exciting– and while we’re gearing up to raise that last chunk of funds, we’re also turning our focus to our regular operating funds.
Our funding really is dependent on broad community support, so as much as we’re always trying to be more innovative in earning revenue, that charitable support from people is still really key.
Any gift of $100 or more designated to the GHC/capital campaign gets you a leaf on our tree of gratitude– which local artist Robb Todd did a breathtaking job of bringing to life on the side wall of the garage in the GHC back yard. (Any gifts by end of October will have leaves go up by the end of the year!)