When Democrats talk about why violent crime is on the upswing, most of them are quick to blame the “easy availability” of guns, along with “root causes” like a lack of employment in high-crime neighborhoods, failing schools, and other factors that contribute to an acceptance of criminality. In St. Louis, Missouri, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, Tyrean “Heru” Lewis thinks he’s found at least a partial answer to addressing one of those root causes: urban farming.
Researchers say a host of factors contribute to a city’s gun violence problem — what they define as deficits in social determinants of health such as income, housing, healthy living environments and quality education.
And food insecurity.
Lacking a complex nutritional diet can harm brain development in childhood, according to public health experts. That can cause later problems dealing with peers, handling authority and responding to situations of extreme stress.
The problems facing areas that experience gun violence are many, Lewis acknowledges, but he has also seen the impact that food can have.
“I’ve seen the difference in kids when they get a meal and when they don’t get a meal, how they behave and how they focus in school,” he said. “So I truly believe that’s all connected.”
Nearly 70% of the city’s 271 homicides last year occurred in low income census tracts without access to a grocery store or supermarket for at least half a mile, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of federal data and police reports.
Fifty-two of the killings occurred in just eight census tracts on the north side of the city with no grocery store for a mile.
St. Louis leads the state in gun violence and for most of the past decade ranked No. 1 for food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to healthy food.
Lewis is the founder of Heru Urban Farming, which is part of what the Kansas City Star calls a “grassroots ecosystem of Black urban growers, farmers markets, entrepreneurs and community leaders” that’s working to create an economically viable and sustainable system for locals in neighborhoods like St. Louis’ Walnut Park East, where there were 10 homicides last year.
Now, this obviously isn’t as simple as “if you plant veggies, gang members will stop shooting each other.” Instead, as one backer of the urban farming movement says, it’s about rebuilding community ties in addition to addressing food insecurity.
What started as one urban farmer and a couple of vendors a month ago has grown to include multiple produce stands, artisans, a bi-weekly yoga class and stretching exercises on the lawn, said Fatimah Muhammad, founder and chair of the Hyde Park neighborhood association.
A retired business woman who moved from St. Louis County to the north city neighborhood to work in the community, Muhammad launched the weekly market as a way for local growers to make a profit by selling their goods, while providing fresh produce to the community at affordable prices.
The historic neighborhood shows the typical signs of a community that has lost residents throughout the decades: vacant homes and closing schools. And as the population decreased, the disinvestment in the community grew, so when grocery stores closed, they didn’t re-open, said Muhammad.
For her, the farmers market also acts as a way to rebuild the community bonds that have disintegrated over the years. Those bonds can deter crime and make the neighborhood safer.
“I mean, if you go back to childhood…if I did something five blocks away, by the time I got home, my mother knew because the neighbors knew who I was and who my parents were,” she said. “And so that communication is one of the biggest voids that we’re missing in urban communities.”
I think Muhammad is right about the importance of rebuilding those community ties, not only to deter crime from happening in the first place but also in terms of helping police solve crimes and ensure that violent offenders face consequences for their actions.
While turning vacant city lots into garden spaces may not seem like a great crime-fighting strategy, I’d argue it’s a much better approach than trying to create new criminal offenses for things like possessing a “large capacity” magazine or a modern sporting rifle. In fact, while I’m never going to give up my guns, I’d be more than happy to donate some of my heirloom tomato seeds and potato plants to those urban farmers who are quite literally trying to change the landscape around them for the better, and my guess is that there are plenty of gun owners and backyard gardeners who feel the same.