A United Way fellowship program is giving social entrepreneurs a leg up.
One of them is an urban farm in southern Dallas, a community with limited access to fresh food. The founder has dreams of a café and market serving up meals by the end of summer.
The neighborhood that surrounds Bonton Farms is as urban as it gets. Highways, housing projects and convenience stores are all shouting distance from these two lots-- which are home to chickens, goats, beehives, farm dogs and rows and rows of crops.
As he plants a neat line of a root vegetable called kohlrabi, Patrick Wright talks about what his life was like before Bonton Farms.
“I was like at ground zero. I had lost everything," he says.
Growing Food And Growing Hope
Wright had been to prison and was struggling with a serious drug problem. He says he prayed for a change and a few days later met a man who’d recently started a small community garden. He invited Wright over to check it out.
“It was a vacant lot right next to his house, and he said he commandeered it. You know, this is the hood, I was like 'commandeered?' We never heard of that word. He said it means to take over. Oh, you jacked that vacant lot, OK," Wright laughs.
That garden led to a full-on farm. It started with two donated lots tucked in a neighborhood between Highway 175 and the Trinity River—then, a couple dozen acres 10 minutes down the road.
Wright was there from the start and is now farm manager. He’s immensely proud of what they’ve built, and what he’s learned along the way about nutrition.
“Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I’m giving a tour and I have these little kids run up to me ‘excuse me Mr. Patrick, can I have a collard green, can I have a tomato? They’re going to go pull that collard green right off the plant and eat it raw," he says."
An Oasis In The Desert
The neighborhood surrounding Bonton Farms is what the USDA calls a food desert, meaning the nearest grocery store is at least a mile away. And a lot of people don’t have cars to drive to far-off supermarkets.
When folks have to make meals from the convenience stores that are in the neighborhood, health problems like diabetes abound.
“You see things a little differently when you live somewhere than when you visit, right? And so when I moved here a lot of those men that I’ve been working with I didn’t know, but they were sick," says farm founder Daron Babcock. "So we planted a garden next to my house originally just so the men that we were working with could have something to do and they could take the food when they went home.”
Babcock moved to south Dallas in 2012 after spending a lot of time volunteering there.
Last year, a United Way fellowship program called The GroundFloor helped the farm expand. This year, Bonton Farms is in the running for more funding.
Plans To Expand
“Ultimately we need a place where people can buy fresh food and can sit down and have a meal together. A good meal together," says Babcock. "And have a place where we can gather as a community and learn about what it means to be healthy, and that we can be.”
So a café and market where people can buy produce, prepared food or just “sit and eat” was the pitch this time around.
The United Way’s Susan Hoff says up next is months of mentorship and training boot camp.
“Those that make it through the boot camp, which we hope everyone will, but it’s pretty intensive, they’ll come back, they’ll pitch again, and that’s when the GroundFloor investors will determine which they will make investments in and those could be grants of up to $100,000," Hoff says.
The lure of that kind of funding is an exciting possibly, Babcock says. Even more exciting? The chance to learn the restaurant business from people in the know.
“Whether we win the money or however much money comes, we’ll be grateful for that," he says. "But what we really need is this community of people to pitch in their ideas and their talents to help make this successful.”
More Than Just Food
Babcock imagines an August opening for his latest venture. One person who’ll help see that through is Patrick Wright. To him Bonton Farms is magical—and heals with more than just healthy food.
“It’s like all my relationships are back together, especially with my daughter. We’ve got a great bond now, she loves the farm. This farm has really, really helped me. Here? It’s like a sanctuary," he says.
A sanctuary with plans to grow, so more people might find peace and purpose there.