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May 22, 2023 | A Note From Clint | Food

Transforming a Food Desert Into a Food Oasis

Nearly fifteen years ago, Matthew 25 began working in the Northwest Neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.

cultivate hope urban farm in cedar rapids iowa

By Clint Twedt-Ball, Founder & Executive Director
From Spring 2023 Newsletter

Change is hard. Real change takes deep and long-lasting commitment. This is true for individuals. It is even more true for a system as big as a neighborhood with thousands of people. Nearly fifteen years ago, Matthew 25 began working in the Northwest Neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.

Honestly, the place was a mess and kind of ugly! A major flood had just happened. Homes were in various states of disrepair. Eventually, hundreds would be torn down. Others were abandoned and some were caught up in bureaucratic red tape, just sitting and rotting. The neighborhood looked more like a place of despair than one of hope.

It was in the middle of winter, 2009, that we at Matthew 25 decided we couldn’t go into spring without some joy and brightness. That spring, we purchased large flower pots, enlisted youth and adults to paint them, filled them with flowers and put them on corners throughout the neighborhood. The high school shop class at Kennedy created simple, wooden signs that read, Cultivate Hope. That was the first time we realized we were in the growing business.

A couple of years later, we started a blacktop urban garden on the old Boys & Girls Club basketball court. It was during this time that we really began to recognize that the neighborhood was considered a food desert. The only food retailers consisted of three bars and three convenience stores, primarily filled with high-calorie, unhealthy food. We realized that long-term, systemic change was needed.

Over the last eleven years, we’ve slowly and methodically worked to shift the neighborhood from a food desert to an oasis of fresh food. Let’s be honest. It hasn’t been easy. The first time we brought up the idea of using vacant flood land to build large gardens we would call the Cultivate Hope Urban Farm, a city council member derided and laughed at us. Fortunately, enough of his colleagues liked the idea that it moved forward and city staff created Iowa’s first urban farm policy.

In 2018, when we developed the idea of a cafe where meals would be fresh, organic and free to those who needed it, some thought we were a bit crazy. Five years later, Groundswell Cafe is on track to sell about $300,000 of food and give away 20%, or about $60,000, in free meals. It’s become one of the most unique restaurants in all of Iowa.

In 2019, we decided to take the next step and move towards the creation of the Cultivate Hope Corner Store, a small grocery focused on fresh, healthy food. At this store, fresh produce is the superstar, front and center as you walk in the door. We even give produce away! The store is kind of a magical place, with many elderly, disabled, and those without a license, walking in as customers.

Why is it so important that we keep expanding this work? Why does fresh food being located in what was considered a food desert matter so much? A lot of research has been done in this area, with lots of books and papers being authored. At the core, the research shows that what we were told growing up is true, we are what we eat.

In neighborhoods where the healthy choice isn’t always the easy choice, the percentage of people overweight and obese is far above the norm. This leads to
things like increased diabetes, absenteeism from school and work, and a general loss of productivity and happiness. Unhealthy choices can often snowball in a way that holds people back.

At Matthew 25, more than anything else, we want people to be free to develop and use their God-given gifts and talents. We know that helping children, youth and adults easily access healthy foods is a key ingredient in living fully into the best version of ourselves.

Give us another ten years, and you may be surprised at how this work continues to expand. We see so many possibilities for helping individuals and neighborhoods to become healthier in a holistic and natural way.

To keep up with Matthew 25, check out our What’s Happening page, search our Events Calendar, or visit the Volunteer page to find ways to get involved!