Growing a food hub and community at the same time

  • Published: Monday, April 5, 2021

Work as a corporate paralegal brought Erica Williams up against issues of disinvestment in North St. Louis County that began to “bother my spirit,” Williams said. “There was a loss of investment in jobs, community, places to find healthy food — a loss of hope in the region — and lots of vacant land and buildings. I thought, ‘Let’s get something going here!’”

That inspiration led Williams to establish A Red Circle, a collaborative community nonprofit. Its signature project is the North County Agricultural Education Center, a community hub focused on food systems. Williams credits an array of MU Extension programs and connections, including the Missouri EATs pilot project, Missouri Master Gardener and the Neighborhood Leadership Academy, with helping her nurture her idea to fruition.

The Missouri EATs pilot project seemed a good way to “set the table to bring community leaders and members together,” she said. “Missouri EATs provides the framework for a holistic conversation about the interplay of food systems with community development and economic health. Especially in an urban environment, it is easy to lose that understanding of the importance of access to quality food and how that connects to deeper issues of overall community health.”

Williams worked through the Missouri EATs framework with MU Extension faculty, inviting community stakeholders to help set priorities to address issues such as the lack of sustainable jobs, education disparities and limited access to healthy food.

“What better way than have food at the center of a community development project, just as food is the centerpiece for any important family or community gathering,” Williams said.

When more people understand the way food is grown, produced and distributed, she said, the more a community can become aware of and advocate for eliminating systemic disparities in all areas, not just around access to healthy food.

The North County Agricultural Center has converted empty lots into gardening space, hired youths and enlisted area Master Gardeners, Washington University students and other community members as volunteers.

A Red Circle’s work on access to healthy food has expanded into the village of Riverview and flourished into a greenhouse, a healthy flavor community garden and an affordable farmers market that supports local small-scale producers and provides nutrition education.

This garden season, A Red Circle will award its first Food and Justice Fellowships to three people ages 19-26 to learn about the intersection of food and justice issues, STEM and entrepreneurship. Williams is also working on food policy issues such as tax credits for businesses to start grocery stores in vacant buildings.

“We are working with people both from within and from outside our community, helping to bridge the gap between people of different races and socioeconomic status, creating connections, awareness and opportunities for more investment,” Williams said.

Photos available:
Julia Ho, left, of Solidarity Economy St. Louis and Saundi Kloeckener, center, of Native Women’s Care Circle help Erica Williams, right, tend the gardens at the North County Agricultural Education Center. Photo courtesy A Red Circle.
A volunteer tends raised bed gardens at the North County Agricultural Education Center. Photo courtesy A Red Circle.
Herbs and scallions thrive in the raised garden plots. Photo courtesy A Red Circle.
A Red Circle founder Erica Williams, left, with her mother, Louise Collins. Photo courtesy A Red Circle.

Writer: Katherine Foran

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