Black Farmer Box aims to create sustainable food system in Sunnyside
In the historically Black community of Sunnyside, in south Houston, two young Black farmers have created what they feel could become a sustainable and equitable model to help feed and reinvigorate food desert communities.
Ivy Walls of Ivy Leaf Farms and Jeremy Peaches of Fresh Life Organics met when Walls reached out to Peaches for help with her farm. Upon realizing that they were working on similar projects and had a similar vision to help the community in Sunnyside, the pair teamed up to create Black Farmer Box, a curated food box and growers’ program that aims to feed the community, empower its members to grow food for their families and as a business, and provide market outlets and visibility to Black and other minority farmers.
Walls moved to Sunnyside in early 2020, and soon realized that there was only one major grocery store for the area’s 20,000 residents— and the quality of the groceries was subpar. “Moving from a food oasis to a food desert was very shocking for me,” said Walls, who grew up in suburban Pearland.
More than 500,000 Houstonians live in areas like Sunnyside that the government has designated as food deserts, meaning communities that have little to no access to fresh foods and where residents often face chronic illnesses and food insecurity—issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Walls started giving her Sunnyside neighbors produce that she was growing for herself and her family. “I would just go around saying ‘Hey, do you want a cucumber? Hey, do you want eggplant? Hey, do you want watermelon?” And people were just saying yes,” she said.
As Walls continued to grow food, the demand continued to be there, so Ivy Leaf Farms was born. Walls sold house plants, held pop-ups and started her own seed company to fund the farm so that she wouldn’t have to charge for produce. In August—the same month she left her job in public health to tend to the farm—she received a grant from Beyoncé’s Beygood Foundation and the NAACP to keep her effort going. But one person alone can’t feed a community, so Walls and Peaches joined forces to create a system that, along with other farmers, they hope can help do that. Hence, their motto: “Stronger together, fresher together.”
“We wanted to have a sustainable, equitable food system—not only for our communities, but for African American and minority farmers because we don’t actually have the true market outlets to sell our products that traditional communities [have],” said Peaches.
Jeremy Peaches, 28, was born in rural Mississippi but moved to Houston when he was 6. He grew up in Sunnyside and started getting involved in agriculture before graduating high school. Like Walls, he went to Prairie View University, where he was “the agriculture kid.” After college, he was back at his high school, Pro-Vision, where he built the largest aquaponics facility in Houston. Since 2016, he has been building urban gardens around Houston, educating youth, consulting, growing produce at his farm in Rosharon and working on various community projects.
At his warehouse at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Peaches displays jars of pickled turnips to exemplify how Black Farmer Box can create business opportunities. The pickles were made by Curtis Lampley, a member of Blodgett Urban Gardens in Third Ward. Lampley started making pickles as a hobby, experimenting with all types of vegetables —okra, beets, jalapeños, squash—that he grew, purchased, or got from Peaches. People loved them and it got him thinking about selling them retail. It’s an example of how, by developing products that can go in Black Farmer Box or can be sold to restaurants or grocery stores, community members like Lampley are creating an enterprise instead of looking at farming or gardening simply as a hobby.
“We’ve been talking about food deserts for 10 to 15 years,” Peaches said. “Why are they food deserts? Grocery stores go to areas where consumers have money to buy their products. When you look at food deserts, the median household income may be $20,000 to $30,000, so a grocery store is not going to come. As we look at growing more food and gardening, we need to look at it from a business perspective or from a socioeconomic perspective because that’s the only way you can change the tide and make a community vibrant again.”
By paying farmers up front or taking their products on consignment, Black Farmer Box ensures that they get paid without having to rely on selling at farmers markets, which typically limits them to selling only on weekends and requires them to have people working the markets. Farmers also get marketing from being in the box and can form a direct relationship with the consumer. They also have a backyard growers’ program through which people in the community can learn how to grow food in their own backyards. Anyone who goes through the program can then sell what they grow back to the box.
Between November and January, Walls and Peaches curated four Black Farmer Boxes. Each box contained fresh, organic produce from their respective farms and other products, such as eggs, sea moss, honey and sauces from other Black or minority farmers and entrepreneurs. The January box, for instance, contained spicy salad mix, daikon radish, carrots, cabbage, tatsoi, eggs and lemonade. Unfortunately, the winter storm that struck the Texas region in February took a toll on the crops and on the farmers, bringing the boxes to a halt.
As of April, Walls and Peaches expected to release their next box in May. Walls had also just leased an additional 2.5 acres with a grant she received from Kellogg’s to expand food production for both Ivy Leaf Farms and Fresh Life Organics. The pair also partnered with Cropswap, a California-based app that connects sustainable farms and consumers, to help with the logistics of distributing the boxes. Through the app, consumers can order, pay and select whether they want to pick up the box at a specified location or have the box delivered to them. Buyers will also have the option to donate a box. Because Walls and Peaches can hire their own delivery drivers, the partnership gives them another opportunity to create jobs in the community.
Walls and Peaches hope that Black Farmer Box can become something that can be replicated in other food desert communities, but even by joining forces, they know they alone can’t feed the entire Sunnyside community, so their goal is to bring attention to the neighborhood in hopes that it gets a grocery store. “This shouldn’t be our reality,” said Walls. “It’s silly to think that there’s only one grocery store for upwards of 20,000 people.”
In the meantime, people can support their efforts by becoming more aware of their local food desert communities and supporting the farmers there. If people buy 10% to 15% of their produce from urban farmers and gardeners, that will also go a long way.
Said Peaches: “When you donate to us, you’re not donating to Jeremy Peaches or Ivy Walls, you’re creating a job for someone like [my brother] who manages this warehouse and has his own business, his own product, his own farm within a year of doing the Black Farmer Box. When people buy his eggs, he’s going back to feed his family. Now he’s a contributor to the community.”
Follow Ivy Walls on social media @IvyLeafFarms. Ivy Leaf Farms is located at 4506 Fuqua St., Houston. Follow Jeremy Peaches on social media @freshlifeorganic. For more information about Fresh Life Organic, visit freshlifehtx.com. See also blackfarmerbox.com