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Hope Farms’ Recipe for Success

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

October 18, 2021. Houston, TX

Children on a tractor
Children at Hope Farms (Photo courtesy of Hope Farms)

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Visible to a whole south Houston neighborhood is Hope Farms situated in a park-like setting. A large two-story, rustic, barn-like, open-air pavilion invites those engaged in community gardens and Hope Farms to gather and learn together. This seven-acre campus and its layout are part of Gracie Cavnar’s initiative to combat childhood obesity, by not only teaching kids to garden and cook but also making it easier for parents to put healthy food n the table. Many children whose diet lacks sufficient fresh produce suffer from obesity and the chronic diseases it fosters like diabetes.

Garden plots
Hope Farms

Hope Farms' Roots

Gracie explained her passion for working to improve children’s health as well as the early roots of her organization which she created in 2005 to combat childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate and eat their food with programs that teach, empower and inspire healthy eating. She started first with a school program to educate young people about eating fresh, healthy produce with gardening and cooking classes. Seven years later, First Lady, Michelle Obama, rolled out the “Let’s Move” program with 43 Federal agencies and dozens of NGO’s that were called together to collaborate on how to improve the American child’s diet. Recipe For Success Foundation was one of the national groups that helped shape this initiative. Gracie wanted to go further than her school-based education because she realized that securing fresh, healthy food was not straightforward for many families. The farm was created not only to ensure the supply of quality food in a food desert but also to train new farmers on best practices of local regenerative growing and by doing so grow the footprint of urban farms serving Houston.

The farm and the farmers

As we walked in, we noticed the community gardens and children’s play area adjacent to the pavilion. Beyond that lay the farm fields and a white cottage, Gracie’s flower studio. We met two men washing a harvest of eggplant and peppers. Noah Rattler, Farm Manager at Hope Farms, has been on that journey now for five years. Educated as a mechanical engineer, he worked in the corporate world for a few years. His work and that environment did not satisfy his yearning to make a greater difference in this world and to care for Mother Earth. He kept searching and eventually found out about permaculture. After taking the Permaculture Design Course in Costa Rica, he knew he had to change the trajectory of his life. Farming and connecting people with their food, the earth, and each other was the answer. “Every day I learn something different at the farm.” He explained, “I love working with the young people and watching the light-bulbs go off when they “get” how their life and their health come from that plant that grows in the soil!”

Blake Miller, who is registered in the Hope Farms farmer training program, drives every day from Missouri City, to learn farming firsthand. He also left his career as a chemical engineering to finding what he feels is a “higher purpose” and “to get closer to the land.” “Farming enables me to do something positive to help the environment.” He said.

Man standing next to a harvest of eggplant and berries
Blake at Hope Farms

Food is the Mission

Two acres are under cultivation. “We’ve learned not to take on more than we can manage,” Noah said. COVID made farming and interaction with the kids and the community a particular challenge. “We are just on our way back to full-scale operation with programs other than food distribution. The food is the mission.” Noah maintained. “All this stuff I do is public service. A lot of volunteers come here to learn how to grow their own food. We’re so disconnected. This farm serves as a hub for the community. In the process, we’re growing people, farmers, and the community.”

Children learning about nature
Children learning about nature (Photo courtesy of Hope Farms)

The Children

Hope Farms serves education programs to over 1,000 children per year. They come to the farm for field trips, after-school programs, and camps, which all incorporate hands-on cooking and gardening classes, enjoying the award-winning Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ curriculum that the Foundation initially offered only in schools. At the farm, they get to see their food production embedded in nature and learn to fully appreciate the interconnectivity of our world. Besides children, the Foundation offers cooking and gardening for all ages as a part of its mission to teach, empower and inspire healthy eating.

Children gardening with a shovel
Children working on the farm (Photo courtesy of Hope Farms)

Challenges of running a nonprofit

“Part of the challenge of farming with a social mission”, Gracie explained, “is the extra work of running a non-profit. That’s a skill in and of itself. The farmers want to farm. Fundraising, relationship building, and messaging to the community need to proceed the farm and be the foundation for the farming work it supports. Gracie continued, “Startup non-profits are extremely vulnerable, in fact, less than 25% make it beyond five years. So, getting off on the right foot with a realistic business plan, solid fundraising infrastructure, strong governance, an engaged board, qualified data collection framework, and impact measurements are critical to ensure that an organization outlives the energy and goodwill of its honeymoon phase. This, of course, is completely aside from establishing a sustainable operating plan for their farm, which will be different depending on how it supports their primary mission— feeding, rehabilitating, teaching, and inspiring people.”

Given these challenges, it is the difference this farm is making in the lives of young people, new farmers, and the neighbors that makes all that effort worthwhile. The children are learning a better diet and to appreciate where their food is coming from.

Author: Farmer Karl

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