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July 1, 2021
Tosha Phonix learned to farm in 2011. As a new mom, she wanted to teach her son healthy eating habits, so she started shopping exclusively at a Black and Muslim-owned grocery store in her North St. Louis neighborhood called Yours Market. Behind the store she discovered garden beds, a hoop house, and an aquaponics system used to raise fish and vegetables in a closed loop.
“That was the first time I had ever heard of a hoop house,” Phonix says. Fascinated, she began volunteering, eventually learning to grow her own food as part of a larger community of active, interdependent urban farmers.
Ten years later, Phonix has built a world out of her original instinct to farm. As the food justice organizer at Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), she launched the Food Equity Advisory Board in an effort to give St. Louis’s Black community a voice in one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. Recently, she co-founded EVOLVE—which stands for Elevating Voices of Leaders Vying for Equity—a food justice organization that supports Black communities throughout St. Louis and provides Black farmers with grants, a tool-sharing program, and business resources.
Phonix shared her story with Civil Eats’ contributor Hannah Wallace; it has been edited for clarity and length.
When I became Muslim, I started learning about the role food plays in not only diet, but in our community. And not just as a cultural celebration—but in how we build community around agriculture. I always knew that the communities that had come out of slavery, where people who grew food—namely sharecroppers—had to build up a system of bartering. That’s how Black Wall Street was created. That’s what got me interested in food justice.
When I was volunteering at Yours Market, I planted a garden behind our duplex. I spent $40 on the box. My best friend helped me set it up and I planted way too many vegetables. And I would have my son nearby in his little baby seat. I would be growing food, and he would be eating grass! So, he’s been growing with me the whole time.
St. Louis City is made up of different neighborhoods—28 wards or so. Everybody North of Delmar Boulevard is predominantly Black, and all the health and economic disparities exist there. And then South St. Louis—south of Delmar—is predominantly white with some people of color. Honestly, all the areas that have been gentrified that were once South City, mixed neighborhoods, are predominantly white and thriving.
I can count on one hand how many grocery stores we have in North City [a suburban area 15 miles outside of St. Louis]. Maybe five—and North City isn’t small.
In 2015, my family invited me out to their land in North County to farm on it. I didn’t have a vehicle, and I thought, “I’m not coming out there.” But then they invited my whole family for the Fourth of July. When I saw that it was three acres of green land, I said, “I’ll be out here next week.”
From 2013 to 2018, I was growing solo on a quarter of an acre of my family’s land, and also growing in the city. I am currently only growing on that land and planning to do food boxes for the elderly.
In 2015, I collaborated with New Roots Urban Farm. I was working at Gateway 180, a homeless shelter, and once a week, I’d take the children to the farm so they could learn about food. They had never been to a farm. With children, healthy habits start young. I taught them that just because you are [experiencing homelessness] doesn’t mean you can’t practice healthy habits.
I started working as a food justice organizer at MCE in 2018. I didn’t know anything about policy or advocacy. But when I saw the words, “food justice organizer,” I was like, “This is everything I’ve been doing in the community.” Food justice is my purpose. It fulfills me.
But the reality is that MCE didn’t give me any resources for the position. They didn’t give me funding and they would discourage me from taking on certain projects. People in St. Louis don’t know what food justice is. It’s not food banks. You can’t swap out the corner store for a food pantry [laughs]. You don’t have anyone from these communities at the table. You’re talking to yourselves, and you’re making all the decisions.
I was the only Black person there and I was one of three non-white people there—so getting change to happen was hard.
MCE was working with 200 farmers and not one of them was Black. There are Black farmers here! And I want to focus on them.
If it wasn’t for social media [and connecting to like-minded folks in other places], I would’ve lost hope a long time ago. There is a hopelessness here, because it’s problem on top of problem, and it never looks like a solution. That’s the thing about the mindset here: We only see local—we don’t see anything outside of St. Louis. And I’m like, “The world is so big. There’s so much happening, and we aren’t connected?”
Then Pandora Thomas came to St. Louis. She’s a permaculture expert from California. She said something that changed my life. She’s from Marin County—one of the richest counties in the country. But Marin City is poor—and it’s got a large Black population. The county had a flooding issue, and they hired her. She took what she had been paid and passed it along to the community to come up with their own solution. It blew my mind. And that is one of the most revolutionary things that you can do: Show love for your people.
Then, in 2019, I went to a Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) program at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in California. It was one of the best experiences of my life. But it also showed me although white people in St. Louis really thought that they were doing equity work, they really weren’t. The Earth Alliance let us mingle with their funders. The nonprofits in St. Louis wouldn’t dare allow us to speak with funders. I ended up getting a grant from WEA and Sierra Club to engage people in North St. Louis around a community-owned grocery store.
That same week, I went to New York City to the Black Urban Growers conference. I met other people who felt like me, understood me, who were ready to build.
I met Randolph Carr at the National Black Food & Justice Alliance. He connected me with Baba Malik [Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Alliance]. They really challenged me: “Go back to St. Louis and bring back people next year,” they said. I couldn’t wait! But I had to wait, because COVID happened.
At EVOLVE, we’re going beyond food access to food justice. We are helping communities empower themselves. One of our prominent local grocery stores, Schnucks, moved out of the North City. The community was begging them to come back, but they didn’t. My only response was: “What if the community owned its own grocery store?”
So, that’s what we’ve been working on—starting a community-owned grocery store—in addition to connecting Black farmers to national organizations for support.
Black farmers don’t ever get access to grants. When COVID happened and the community-owned grocery store was put on hold, we turned a grant I’d received for that into $400 grants for farmers in North City, North County, and the Metro East. We [kept raising more and soon] had a total of $5,200 to give to farmers.
We also help Black farmers get the resources they need to scale up and be successful, such as working with them to share tools, connecting them to business resources, and helping them find ways to sell their produce and value-added products. It could be CSAs if they want or farmers’ markets. We are collaborating with a local woman, Fatimah Muhammad, who is starting a farmers’ market in North City. We will help cover the cost of the farmers’ market and marketing materials. We also are working with them to make farm boxes for the elderly.
We’re still in the fundraising stages for the grocery store. First, we’re trying to buy the land. The city owns about 12,000 vacant properties. We’re hoping to raise $200,000 for the actual store, but we don’t know yet how much the land will cost.
At EVOLVE, we’re working with 12 urban farmers and two rural farmers. Eventually we want to do a training program for Black rural farmers. A lot of times the extension programs have classes that are in sundown towns [where Black people and other non-white racial groups were excluded from after sundown]. I wouldn’t dare take my Black farmers there. The outreach to Black farmers is not happening in the rural areas. I always say it was a deliberate effort to keep us away from each other. But ha! I drove down and found ‘em!
Photos courtesy of Tosha Phonix.
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