“When I was in the second or third grade, we went to the outdoor education center, which was like an old farm,” Gibson recalls. “They had farm animals they shipped in only when kids came in.” But they gave the children, including Gibson, some seeds to take home. “I grew tomatoes on a little strip of grass at our apartment complex, but I didn’t like them. So I gave them away,” he says.
What drew Gibson to growing was the same thing that brought him to community service—violence. On Memorial Day 2010, he was looking out his window and saw a fight over some marijuana. “One guy threw a punch and hit the other person who fell and hit his head.” Even though Gibson called 911, and police and ambulances arrived at the scene, the victim died from his injuries. “One of my neighbors who was at the scene came to me and said, ‘get out of this town, because there is nothing here for you.’”
Gibson didn’t leave Battle Creek. Instead, he wanted to do something to make a mark for himself and his community. But little did he know at the time he’d become a part of a major food access revolution in Michigan.
A year later Gibson met Jeremy Andrews, the founder of Sprout—a small collective of community gardens at the time—and Anderson offered him the opportunity to volunteer at Sprout. “I started coming in a couple of days a week, then it was every day, working on the organization, systems, and excel spreadsheets.” When Sprout was awarded an AmeriCorp grant, Gibson became the organization’s first paid staffer and he never left.
In the years since, the organization has undergone a growth spurt; it added a commercial-scale greenhouse and began selling produce to restaurants and institutional clients, such as hospitals.
“A lot of the growth has come from building and nurturing relationships with the local chefs,” Gibson says. In 2014, Sprout received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to hire a staff person, who helped manage relationships with restaurants. In just one year, Sprout went from selling produce worth $14,000 to $50,000. “That additional revenue helped us with the funds to provide more food access to low income areas of the city,” Gibson says.
In addition to selling its produce via a community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, Sprout runs a farmers’ market in Washington Heights, a low income are of Battle Creek. “People say it is a dangerous area, but our customers come there to shop and bring their children and grandkids,” Gibson says.
The Sprout team also participates in several mobile farmers in residential parts of the city. “In order to be able to pay for the mobile market, we go to the downtown businesses, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where we quickly sell out,” he adds.
In 2014, Sprout was selected to become a part of the USDA-funded Food Hub grant, which gave them funding to increase sales to institutions and the public by establishing a market-stand and packaging facility on its farm site.
Battle Creek is home to the Kellogg Company and the Kellogg Foundation and that same year, Gibson stretched his leadership wings as a member of the first cohort of the Foundation’s Leadership Network, as a food and agriculture fellow. The fellowship has been extended to 2017, and Gibson is finding ways to combine his passion for community service and nurturing youth with his job at Sprout through the fellowship.
Spring is a busy time for urban farms, and Sprout is no exception. Gibson and the team are ramping up to begin filling CSA boxes in the coming weeks. He says the team leveraged their relationship with a large hospital in the area to create an employer-based CSA. “The staffers pay the hospital and the hospital pays us,” Gibson says. “We create workplace boxes with produce from 20 different area farmers.”
The urban farmer also has a plan in place to lease out more of the Sprouts land to beginning farmers. “It would be the perfect opportunity for the 18-year-old who wants to be a farmer, but doesn’t have enough money to do it,” he says.
Sprout is having a sizable impact in Battle Creek, and Gibson is quick to point out that it is still a small organization. But that doesn’t keep him or Andrews from thinking about the future.
“We’ve been thinking about getting into some of the downtown Battle Creek development work in the next three to five years,” he says. They’re contemplating opening up a storefront to sell fresh produce, for one. Either way, Gibson plans to continue lifting up his community through the unexpected avenues of food and farming.
Photos courtesy of Sprout.