Katherine Kelly is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Cultivate Kansas City. Katherine grew up working on her neighbor’s row crop and livestock farm outside of Wichita and became a backyard and community gardener when she moved to the Twin Cities. She started her farming career as a field worker on organic farms in 1991 in the Boston area. She moved back to the Midwest in late 1996, where she started and ran Full Circle Farm for eight years. In 2005, she co- founded the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, now Cultivate Kansas City. She has worked professionally since the early 1980's with grass roots community organizations in the Twin Cities, Boston and Kansas City areas doing program management, fundraising, marketing, financial management and organizational development consulting.
Katherine Kelly: My name is Katherine Kelly and I am co-founder and executive director of Cultivate Kansas City. Cultivate Kansas City is a non-profit organization that was started in 2005.
We operate as an umbrella organization. We have been building the urban local food movement by helping people who want to grow food to sell or to donate in large quantities and helping them figure out how to run their businesses. We also do policy work, help non-profits develop community-based food projects, and we are partnered with Catholic Charities of North East Kansas where we help refugees start and run their own farming operations.
We participate as community developers by looking for areas where an urban food system does not have an opportunity or needs attention. We try to grow the movement as a whole and then slide into niches to figure out how to make our community stronger.
Douglas Gayeton: How is your organization engaged in helping build a more connected local food system from the standpoint of infrastructure and distribution?
Katherine: Our movement has gone through some interesting developments and processes. In the Midwest, our local vegetables and fruits industry was devastated by the national highway system, by the concentration of grocery stores and by all the changes in industrial agriculture. This was partially driven by development pressure and by the fact that we grow corn, soy beans and wheat, which are big industries for this region. The farmers with the 15, 30 and 50 acre vegetable farms in the 1940’s and 50’s sold their property for development because they could make a lot more money selling it than they could growing vegetables on it. This led to a sprawl and a loss of our local food industry.
As an industry, we’re starting at a baseline stage. The organizations that work on local agriculture, like Kansas Rural Center and the Kansas City Food Circle, are dealing with growing a community of smaller farms. We’re starting to see that farms are scaling up, getting more sophisticated and moving on to wholesale markets along with other developmental changes. There has been talk about becoming a food hub for years and years.
The organization Cultivate is not just about food production, but about distribution and access. If we’re going to feed our urban residents more healthy food, they need to be getting it in their schools, work places and institutions. That food hub is going to be the way to support that.
Douglas: Have these infrastructural pieces been rebuilt from scratch? And if there wasn’t an organization like Cultivate or the ones that you mentioned, how else would we actually rebuild our local food systems?
Katherine: In any movement you need organizations, regular staff and somebody who picks up the phone and answers when an elected official says, “Hey, I just heard about this vertical farming thing. How do we make that happen in Kansas City?” In essence, there needs to be the stability and structure that organizations provide because they accelerate and strengthen any movement.
That’s what we’re seeing slowly happen in Kansas City. Originally there was Kansas City Community Gardens, then there was Kansas City Food Circle, which was more of a consumer-directed movement, and then there was Cultivate. Many non-profits now are tapping into different aspects of the food system, like working with different constituencies, promoting on a neighborhood level, and working with youth and people with disabilities. This generates both a diversity and the kind of organizational structures that help a movement grow and be sturdy.
Douglas: When reintroducing local food systems, people often rediscover cultural aspects in a community that were lost. What role does food play in the culture of your community and how was that strengthened by the return of your local food system?
Katherine: Many of the communities we work with are inner city communities. These communities used to be thriving, where there was a family living in a house on every lot on the block and there were residents, networks and a small local grocery store that supplied people with food. In the past, these neighborhoods had a network of communications relationship about them, but now many of these neighborhoods are down to two occupied and active houses while all the other ones sit empty or have been knocked down.
What we are seeing with many of these communities and non-profits is the rebuilding of relationships and communication networks. They’re trying to figure out how to get people to know what’s happening in their community. Food, gardens and farmers’ markets are some of the strategies available to them.
Human communities were built around getting and eating food. Food has been at the center of our relationships for as long as we’ve been moving around the Earth. McDonald’s does not create that kind of community. Growing food in the neighborhood, having a farmers market and having multi-generations engaged in feeding people is what starts rebuilding those relationships and connections. This local connection also puts people back in the position of being producers and givers, and allows people to express love through sharing something they’ve produced. This is why we include food growing and distribution as part of our definition of a healthy neighborhood and as a vibrant and interesting community. They are absolutely essential.