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Harvest for the hungry: Partnership tackles food deserts, prepares for 2018 expansion

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Right in the middle of Indianapolis’ largest food desert, a 1.9-acre urban garden is growing. The food produced on-site feeds the community’s physical, economic and educational hunger.

The Flanner House, a nonprofit organization that has been actively serving the northwest side of Indianapolis for over 100 years, has been cultivating Flanner Farms foralmost a year now. Brandon Cosby, the executive director of Flanner House, runs the farm on a F.E.E.D. (Farming, Education, Employment and Distribution) philosophy, providing opportunities for employment and education to members of the community from low-income backgrounds or a history in the criminal justice system.

Brandon Cosby, executive director of Flanner House, grew up in a farming community. (Photo/Keshia McEntire)

“We work with young men and women from the neighborhood who have been kicked out, pushed out or dropped out of school. They are looking to get reconnected and want to learn the business of farming. Those young people work the farm, they become trained and knowledgeable from seed to harvest to distribution, so they are able to run the farmers market and understand it all,” said Cosby. 

According to DoSomething.org, about 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts. Nearly half of those individuals are also low-income. Flanner House has a long legacy of promoting what they call “food justice.” In the 1940s, the organization led an initiative called The Food Program that focused on gardening, cooking, canning and nutrition. When Cosby came on board with Flanner House, his goal was to guide the local community back along the path of self-reliance and independence through food. Cosby grew up in a farming community in New Castle, Indiana. He says it wasn’t until college that he realized that not many people know how to grow their own food. His objective with the farm is to “normalize the idea of sustainable living in our community.”

“If we can control what we eat and the quality of what we eat, that is a strong step toward being able to advocate for ourselves and control our destinies,” explained Cosby. 

Earlier this year, Flanner Farms teamed up with Brandywine Creek Farms, a for-profit-farm-turned-nonprofit-organization that aims to feed food insecure communities in Indiana. Brandywine helps keep Flanner Farms stocked on produce, all of which is donated or sold well below market price. Since collaborating, they have set up small farmers markets in the city. On Oct. 28, from noon–6 p.m., they will host their first full-day event, the Rural Meets Urban Harvest Festival at Flanner Farms, complete with music, hay rides, a pumpkin patch, food sourced by local farmers, a hog roast and more. 

“The hog roast is coming from this idea of where the country meets the city. Where those traditional types of things you find at a harvest celebration someplace in a rural part of the state, we will bring right here to the neighborhood,” said Jonathan Lawler, executive director of Brandywine Creek Farms.

Lawler says that since the partnership formed, he has realized that two of the main obstacles preventing urban populations from farming are access to resources and representation from people in their own communities. He told the story of a girl who visited his farm but felt she could not participate in farming because of her race. 

“We had an inner-city group out here last season, and this young girl really liked the tractors. At the end of the tour I asked her, ‘What type of farmer do you want to be?’ She said she couldn’t be a farmer. I asked why and assumed she was going to say because she was a girl, and I was going to say that my wife is a farmer. Then she explained to me it was because she is Black, which I didn’t have an answer for. I had to take that to Brandon and some guys at Flanner House. I asked, ‘This has got to be a weird answer, right?’ and he goes, ‘If they don’t see Black farmers as children, how are they supposed to think it’s a job for them?’” said Lawler. 

Cosby says that opening Flanner Farms was simply phase one of his plan. Next year, he hopes to expand the farm and open a micro grocery store and cafe on Flanner House’s property. He sees the harvest festival as a way to celebrate the past while getting the community excited about what is to come.

“I really want everybody to come together and celebrate at this event. We have had a great year; we have had a number of men and women complete our training program,” he said. “This is our way to give back to the community and say thank you for the support and participation.”


For more information, visit flannerhouse.org/flanner-farm and brandywinecreekfarms.org.

Community members gather to plan the 2018 expansion of Flanner Farms. (Photo/Keshia McEntire)

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