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VOL. 130 | NO. 123 | Thursday, June 25, 2015

Seeds of Nutrition in South Memphis

Knowledge Quest to build packhouse for Green Leaf Learning Farm

By Don Wade

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Second in a series of profiles on the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis’ GiVE 365 grantees.

Knowledge Quest chef-in-residence Aryen Moore-Alston instructs program participants Terry White, left, and JaTerrious Williams in the process of making their own pickles.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The community garden/urban farming concept literally took root years ago. Knowledge Quest founder and director Marlon Foster remembers well the 25-by-25-foot plot at the Fowler Homes housing project back in 1999. It was a humble beginning planted with a few seeds and a lot of faith and hope.

As time passed, Knowledge Quest acquired more land for a community garden in South Memphis that now spans nearly an acre across from its main campus at 590 Jennette Place. Soon, the site will cover about three acres as formerly blighted properties give way to progress.

The neighborhood’s shotgun-style homes and vacant lots were in various states of disrepair. One house used to be a venue for dog fighting; another house was used for drug sales. No more.

Today, nonprofit Knowledge Quest’s Green Leaf Learning Farm is a USDA-certified organic farm that provides an avenue for educating students about urban agriculture and healthy eating. And thanks in part to a $10,000 grant this year from GiVE 365 – the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis’ dollar-a-day giving circle – a packhouse will be built on site to take the Green Leaf Learning Farm to the next stage.

However, the original objective of the program remains important: feeding the 150 or so Knowledge Quest families healthy foods and good information on nutrition, food preparation and cooking.

The organization now also offers a culinary program called the Jay Uiberall Culinary Academy, in which high school students can learn culinary skills and develop their own signature dishes using fresh produce they plant, cultivate and harvest.

Signs of success, Foster says, have come in the most tangible of ways, such as seeing a 10-year-old boy so crazy about fresh cucumbers that he’s got the Lay’s potato chip mindset: He can’t eat just one. Or seeing another child walking down the street eating a fresh tomato instead of a candy bar.

“I was never able to get my hands in the dirt. I grew up in the concrete jungle in New York City,” said Josephine Tempesta, farm manager at Knowledge Quest. “It’s the same thing with these kids (in Memphis). They’re getting a chance to see the whole process of where food comes from.”

The grant for the packhouse is, in the big picture, an opportunity that Knowledge Quest hasn’t had: contributing to a program becoming self-sustaining.

“The packhouse, with the refrigeration, increases the lifespan of our produce and allows us to reach different audiences,” Tempesta said. “We’ll have room for a community center at the front of the house, and we’ll have nutritional classes and cooking demonstrations.”

Local landowners have told Knowledge Quest the land used to be farmland, Foster said, adding, “We have awesome soil.”

But as a community, the eating habits aren’t so awesome. This is especially true, Foster says, in areas of Memphis that are food deserts – places where grocery stores with fresh produce are hard to find but convenience stories stocked with junk food are plentiful.

A recent Gallup ranking listed Memphis as America’s most obese city of more than a million residents, with a 31.9 obesity rate among adults. And according to the American Diabetes Association, it’s estimated that one out of every three children born after 2000 in the United States will be directly affected by that disease.

Foster points out that poor nutrition’s impact on children goes beyond those numbers: “It affects their attention level and their energy level when they go to school.”

And the need to educate children and their families about healthy eating isn’t limited to Memphis, or even to the United States. When Tempesta was with the Peace Corps in Mexico, she said, families there had to be educated on the value of eating certain vegetables that were not widely consumed within their culture.

So the education will continue, and the new packhouse will make that easier. It also will provide a better process for washing, preparing and storing food – some of which will be sold at farmers markets or, on a small scale, to local restaurants. One already involved is The Four Way, a soul food restaurant at Walker Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King and others would come to town and eat there,” Foster said of The Four Way. “It’s a neighborhood institution.”

Foster says the total price tag on the packhouse project is $54,000 and he hopes to have it operational by the end of the year. There is still some fundraising to do, but the grant and other donations – including flooring and a new roof with skylights – have provided a start.

But it’s the moment-to-moment progress that confirms they are plowing new ground.

“Children,” he said, “are becoming stewards of their own eating habits.”

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