Feeding the Community
Last year, we all spent a lot more time thinking about what was on our plates. The pandemic highlighted the importance of knowing where our food comes from, but for many in our community, access to fresh, quality produce is not guaranteed. Tyrean Lewis’ goal is to combat food insecurity and overcome food apartheids in St. Louis to encourage healthier lifestyles. He established Heru Urban Farming, a local farm that sustainability produces organic produce and herbs to benefit underserved populations.
Farming wasn’t originally Lewis’ plan. He has a decade of experience in schools, teaching both physical education and health and serving as a substitute teacher. He followed his career in education with managerial positions at a few local businesses. “I was all over the place,” he notes. While he wasn’t involved in agriculture, he learned his family had a robust history in farming. In the late 1930s, Lewis’ great uncle and other African American farmers created an all Black co-op. “It was almost unheard of at the time,” he says. “I looked them up and discovered they won a variety of prizes at state fairs for their produce. It was cool to know my family had done that. I guess that farming is in my blood.”
With his history in health education, Lewis always had an interest in eating healthy. In 2017 while looking for fresh produce in North St. Louis, he became aware of just how prevalent food disparities are in parts of our community. “The produce at the store was pitiful, and there were very few vegan options,” he notes. He decided to investigate grocery stores in other areas, starting in midtown and moving out to Clayton and further west. Even though all the stores were part of the same chain, he discovered the quality of produce and the types available were drastically different.
Lewis began growing his own food in buckets, and he quickly expanded to working out of an empty lot across the street from his home. “I reached out to Brandon Bosley, the Ward 03 alderman, and he helped me get a lease for a garden,” he says. “People would come up to talk with me and ask questions. I saw there was a real interest in fresh produce.” In 2018, Lewis established Heru Urban Farming with a little more than 10,000 square feet to grow fruits and vegetables. Today, the farm has multiple plots in different areas that total four acres.
To help the farm thrive, Lewis worked with several accelerators, including the BALSA Foundation and WEPOWER. Most recently, he was part of the inaugural class of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator, which was designed to empower entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities in the St. Louis startup ecosystem. Along with access to UMSL resources and business development classes, Heru Urban Farming received a $50,000 grant, which Lewis used to hire full-time employees, purchase farm insurance and procure equipment that allow him to extend the farm’s growing season.
Urban Heru Farming grows a variety of produce. Along with staples like tomatoes, peppers, collards, strawberries and watermelons, Lewis works to introduce a variety of vegetables and fruits people may not be familiar with, such as Asian greens. The farm primarily distributes food through CSA subscriptions. For every five that Lewis sells, he donates a 12-week subscription to a family in need. “Currently, we have 15 families who are benefiting from the program,” he says. “Plus, we have events to feed the unhoused population the first Saturday of every month.” This summer, Heru Urban Farming also will be at Be Well Café’s Farmers Market in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
To help promote a healthy lifestyle, Lewis works with students both at Heru Urban Farming and in schools. He is helping create a health curriculum for middle and high school students that is in line with the state learning standards. He notes that farming comes with understandable baggage for the Black community, and one of his goals is to make people more comfortable with the idea. “I taught a class at Better Family Life about the history of certain crops, their health benefits, how they’re grown and ways to cook them,” he says. “By presenting a total picture of the plant, people have a better understanding.”
Pictured at the top: Tyrean Lewis
Photo courtesy of Urban Heru Farming