On the western edge of Glencrest Civic League in Southeast Fort Worth sits a property that soon could become an epicenter of education and agriculture for the community.
There sits a three-and-a-half-acre farm, Mind Your Garden, manned by husband and wife Steven and Ursula Nuñez, 38.
Several days a week, Steven heads to local grocery stores to pick up their unsold and undesirable produce. Much of it is still in edible condition while the rest is buzzing with flies and dripping with juice as the pair unload the crates to weigh them.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work,” Ursula said. “But it’s good work and we like to work and it’s therapeutic.”
Today’s haul was on the high end for the farm. The most they’ve received is over 1,000 pounds. of discarded produce. The couple composts the produce to use as fertilizer.
They’ll add it to their terraced gardens to prepare the soil for planting in fall. For now, they’re sowing the seeds for an urban farm, with which they hope to combat food scarcity and promote healthy living.
In 2013, the Nuñezes bought the property, which once belonged to Steven’s parents. The house on the property eventually became their home. But Steven always planned to make the backyard into a garden.
Steven’s passion and expertise began when he studied abroad in Guatemala, where he learned about urban agriculture. He then attended a workshop from the National Center for Appropriate Technology designed to teach veterans about agriculture.
These experiences inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Texas at Arlington. Steven and Ursula also received certifications in permaculture and Ursula has a background in education.
While looking for a thesis topic, Steven learned about food deserts in Southeast Fort Worth, where some residents didn’t have sufficient access to food. The Nuñezes said they feel the best way to address this is through an educational shift in the community.
“Food is what brings all of us together,” Steven said. “We can be a facilitator for the community to come in and have healthy food options and the education and social community building aspect.”
Mind Your Garden is now one of a handful of community gardens in the Grow Southeast network, an independent initiative that helps farms reach success.
About Glencrest and Southeast food deserts
Not all of Southeast Fort Worth is a food desert, but some of its census tracts meet the federal definition for one. In order for a census tract to be a food desert, according to the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas, it must meet two criteria:
- The poverty rate must be 20% or higher, or the median household income must be at or below 80% of the median household income for the region.
- At least 500 people and/or at least 33% of the households must live more than a half-mile from a large grocery store or supermarket in urban areas.
Food deserts usually have an abundance of convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and liquor stores.
Linda Fulmer, the executive director of Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration, who partners with Grow Southeast, has lived in Fort Worth since 1980 and remembers the shift of Southeast Fort Worth to a low-income area.
“(Southeast Meadowbrook) was an aging community with homes built in the 1930s and 1940s that were mainly occupied by aging original homeowners,” she said. “At that time there were eight grocery stores within three miles of my little house. Today only one of those stores remains in operation.”
Original homeowners in the area died or moved away, and the homes became available for rent by lower-income families. Many residents take their money to stores outside of the area, Fulmer said, which “erodes the shopper public for what stores remain.” Grocery stores are not a high-profit business, she said, so the stores look for a high density of residents with disposable income.
Glencrest Civic League is about five miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth and South of Highway 287. There is one small market (a Save A Lot food store at 3101 E. Seminary Drive) and one large grocery (a Foodland at 3320 Mansfield Highway) within a half-mile-service radius of the neighborhood limits.
Both are located at the southernmost edge of the neighborhood, making them less accessible to the majority of the neighborhood. Steven’s thesis, published in December 2018, found 70% of the neighborhood’s food sources are located at its southernmost tip. His thesis also found 9% of residents did not have at least one vehicle for their household.
“Part of understanding food insecurity is also understanding the demographics of the communities,” said Jesse Herrera, CoAct’s founder and executive director, who works with Grow Southeast. “Historically, there have been effects one could attribute to redlining or other systemic oppressions that have led our communities to the path they’re on.”
With 29% of households below the poverty line, Glencrest Civic League is considered a low-income neighborhood, according to census tract data. This is about double the poverty rate in Fort Worth (14.5%) and more than double the rate in Tarrant County (12%). Sixty-one percent of residents have a household income under $50,000.
The neighborhood is 56% Black, 36% Hispanic, 4% white, 2% Asian and 2% Pacific Islander. Of its 466 residents, 11.6% of the population has veteran status.
While lack of food options is an issue, so too is poor infrastructure. A lack of sidewalks, lack of exterior lighting and inefficient or insufficient bus routes can make it difficult to access food, Herrera said.
“If your food takes you an hour, two hours, three hours to get to and from there — that’s assuming these routes would actually be open by the time an individual gets off work— that’s part of what leads to food scarcity,” Herrera said.
The area’s economy affects food insecurity. Herrera said it’s harder to come across well-paying jobs in the southeast. Money goes toward rent first, and putting food on the table can be difficult with a minimum wage job.
The effects of food insecurity and little access to nutritious food have greater implications for the residents’ health, as Steven and Ursula have experienced.
“Steven’s family has a history of diabetes, and my family has a history of heart disease, which are both food-related diseases,” Ursula said. “I didn’t understand that with the food you consume, there are effects to unhealthy eating.”
A healthy diet can lead to a longer life, lower risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancer, as well as help with chronic diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Steven and Ursula said despite exercising and training for marathons, it wasn’t until they changed their eating habits — cutting out alcohol and turning to a plant-based diet — that they saw a difference in their health.
How community urban farms address food scarcity
Though putting more grocery stores with healthy, affordable options in a more accessible place seems like the obvious solution, Nuñez suggests in his thesis this would have little effect on the buying choices of residents. The biggest factors are cultural background, tradition, education, custom and habit, his thesis argues.
“The whole nutritional education is extremely important,” Steven said. “It’s a long and tough journey to live a healthy lifestyle. For our community, some people just don’t know how to cook or eat healthily. They see fast foods and convenience as their only option. They need that strong support from their community to be successful.”
Community farms aren’t just about selling produce to residents, Herrera said. Rather, the farms also empower residents and boost the local economy to lift these communities out of poverty.
Once the farmers are equipped with successful business models, the farms could create opportunities for secondary and tertiary markets like neighborhood composting services and niche restaurants or cottage industries, he said.
“We’re looking at this through the lens of entrepreneurship and trying to create resources that support,” Herrera said. “These farms have the ability to create a lot of jobs.”
The future of Mind Your Garden
Though it’s not open to the public yet, Steven and Ursula have already planned how they want to get the community involved on the farm.
They have a handful of volunteers helping build infrastructure to ready the farm for planting and a public opening. Preparing for the fall has been more than just physical labor, he said. Farming has allowed him and the volunteers to dig deep with each other.
“It’s a therapy session when we’re out here,” Steven said. “We’re out in nature. We’re working, sweating, talking about food insecurity and health. By the time they leave, we’ve had a pretty deep conversation. That’s definitely the community outreach aspect of it.”
To provide that experience to other residents, they intend to have gardening spaces where the community can get their hands dirty, as well as outdoor classroom space.
They will have a “healthy hour,” which will be like a happy hour focused on inviting the community over to eat and discuss their health.
“When we went plant-based and stopped drinking alcohol, we realized almost every social thing revolves around eating or drinking,” Steven said. “There’s a need for people looking to have a healthy lifestyle but still want to socialize.”
The Nuñezes said it’s an honor to be able to provide for their community and share what their farm will have to offer.
“This is a lifestyle business, not a part-time business or hobby. This is our life,” Steven said. “It means so much to us to get to express ourselves, our creativity, and be of service.”
Brooke Colombo is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.