One small but thriving urban community center is spearheading its own anti-poverty initiative one child, and one bean sprout, at a time.
On a sweltering summer day, a rowdy group of children play basketball on the cracked pavement of a South Memphis neighborhood. A block down the street, teenagers are loitering outside the corner store where a shooting broke out only a few days ago.
Between these two groups, rising unexpectedly in the heart of the inner city, sturdy white corn waves in the hot breeze. Neat rows of okra, watermelon, greens, and other produce are flourishing amid crowded homes and dilapidated lots on Jennette Place, a few blocks south of east Crump Blvd.
This is Green Leaf Learning Farm, the newest initiative of Knowledge Quest, Inc., a United Way agency founded as a community outreach center in 1995.
Work on the garden began with a groundbreaking in March. Christian Man, Green Leaf's creator and an employee of Knowledge Quest, is modeling the project after a growing number of urban farms in Memphis and across the country.
"I saw how strategically dense urban agriculture can be," Man says. "In the most simple terms, it means that people know they have another meal coming. On a broader level, it can bring communities together in a powerful way. This morning three neighbors were just hanging out in the garden. That tells me it's gaining legitimacy not just as a source of produce but as a community space."
The goal of Green Leaf Learning Farm is to provide the space and resources for neighborhood residents to begin cultivating their own food. Produce can also be bought and sold at local farmers markets. Eventually, Green Leaf will be installing gardens at local homes.
Low income, a dependence on food stamps, and limited public transportation come together to make nutritious food hard to come by in this neighborhood. Kids prefer to grab chips at the corner store rather than seek healthier options.
"The biggest challenge right now is creating a curriculum that gets second-graders excited about gardening in the middle of summer," Man says.
It seems to be working. An 11-year-old boy separates himself from the group shooting hoops and marches toward the green space where Man and Walter Gates, another Knowledge Quest worker, are hammering beams together. The boy, Tadarius, grabs a box of screws and asks to help.
"Okay," Man responds, "but if you want to help, you can't clear out on me like you did an hour ago. Got it?"
With a grin, Tadarius slips under a two-by-four and holds a screw to the beam. "Gimme that drill," he demands.
"Look at any of these kids, and you can pretty accurately assume they don't have a dad in their lives," Man says. "We want to teach them not just about ecology but about their relationship to the world and other people.
"A huge part of this initiative is to build hope. We need a stubborn refusal to accept that there's nothing we can do about things we've lost. We can take something blighted and grow new life."