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More than a Number

She was walking down the road to the farm. I couldn’t make out who it might be. It wasn’t unusual to have new volunteers park at the gate and walk down. The “No Motorized Vehicles” sign doesn’t apply to the farm volunteers, but new folks don’t always know that.

It became clear that she wasn’t a volunteer as she got closer. Her pink top wasn’t a blouse but a cropped tank top. Her pants were a dinghy tan and her feet bare. It was a warm winter day, but winter, nonetheless. Maybe it was all she had. The clothes obviously hadn’t been washed in a long while.

The arms were quickly swaying back and forth, hands pointed outward. It was the addict’s walk – “schizting” and talking to herself.  In my old life I would’ve called it the “hoe stro’” and laughed at her. Today, it simply made me sad.

It may have been fifteen years since I found myself in her shoes – or lack of them – but I still have enough street sense to know to keep my eye on any addict. Stuff tends to disappear quickly. Addicts are quite resourceful when it comes to the “getting and using and finding means to get more”. I figured she was going to ask for money, but she walked on by without so much as a word or a sideways glance.

Photo by Arthur Yeti on Unsplash

I continued working, making sure to keep her in my peripheral vision. She stopped by the old compost pile at the south end of the farm. She looked carefully as she started walking slowly around the pile. Then it hit me – she was looking for something to eat.

I pick up culled produce from a couple of local grocery stores and add them to the compost area each Monday. It makes for great soil amendments, but I’m always saddened to see the amount of food that gets wasted each weekend. I realize stores aren’t supposed to sell products past their “Sell by” date. I know how people are about “ugly” produce – stuff that isn’t picture perfect. Much of what I pick up is still good to eat.

Many times, I’ve made food boxes to give away instead of throwing it all in the compost. Most Mondays I leave a good box of produce next to the pile. The farm is surrounded by hidden homeless camps and I don’t want it to go to waste. Maybe that’s what the young woman was looking for. Maybe she learned that something to eat could be found by the compost heap.

She had stopped circling the pile and stood there; sad eyes cast toward the ground. I put down my garden hoe and began walking towards her. She didn’t see me at first. She stood silently and never looked my way. As I got closer, her face came into focus. She must have been quite an attractive young lady at one time, but now her face was dirty, tired, and weathered, her eyes sunken and hollow. She probably wasn’t over thirty but looked to be much older. Hard living tends to age one quickly.

She looked up and saw me walking toward her. Her eyes showed fear and she hurried toward the river. One needs to be careful on the streets, especially a woman. I didn’t want to scare her, so I stopped and watched her disappear down the levee, headed for the river.

I wished there had been a box of food there. I wished she’d stopped for a minute and let me offer her some of the snacks I keep in my truck. I wished that she – that no one – had to pick through a compost pile just to have something to eat. I hurt for her.

She soon reappeared, made it up to the Trinity Trail, and walked out of sight. I went on about my work, but I couldn’t shake the image of her despair and shuffling searching. The lines on her face were burned into my memory. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she had a home to go to and people who cared about her. My heart broke for her. Empathy is a bitch sometimes.

When I first started fundraising for Opal’s Farm, I threw out a lot of statistics about food insecurity, food “deserts” (a misnomer but I’m not going to get into that now…), and our city’s low-income neighborhoods and how the farm would make a positive impact on it all. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see past a statistic, to see the face of someone else. I can’t empathize with a statistic.

Statistics are great, collecting data important and necessary, but it’s easy to see large numbers and be blinded to the individual. Quantification and identification aren’t solutions. Statistical data generates a lot of sympathy (usually in the form of pity), meetings and commissions but little action…

The young lady searching for food in the compost is more than a statistic. So is the old man I see regularly outside the neighborhood convenience store asking for change or simply something to eat. So are the kids who rely on a free school lunch to make sure they have something that day.

It’s easy to be overlooked or lumped into a category that makes them “the other” if one is just a statistic. Numbers can be overwhelming – “there’s nothing I can do so I’ll let someone else take care of it”. Just say “There but for the grace of God go I ” and go on about business…

There is something each one of us can do – a starting point for all our problems. We can stop. We can see the face behind the number. We can listen. Statistics don’t move people to action. People move people to action. Listening moves people to action. Seeing people as children of the same God and the same humanity as we are moves people to action.

In the oft-quoted passage in Matthew 25, Jesus says,

“I was hungry, and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink, I was homeless, and you gave me a room, I was shivering, and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me… Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me”

I need eyes that see – really see – and ears that listen – not just hear – to do something for the “overlooked or ignored”. I begin the process of identification that allows me to serve the God in each and everyone of us. I can’t think of a better way to live…

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Thank You Shoutout DFW!

We had the good fortune of connecting with Gregory Joel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Gregory, how does your business help the community?
When we began our Creative Strategy session for 2020 one of the very first questions was “What is food insecurity?” What does that look like and how does it affect the neighborhood, the city, the state, and ultimately, world? The consequences of food insecurity – not having enough to eat, not knowing if one will, and not having access to healthy food – touch virtually every aspect of society. Crime, education, economic opportunity, poverty, health and health care – the list goes on. Lack of healthy food is the root of almost all social problems. Food – healthy food -is a basic human right. Opal’s Farm can’t feed everyone, but we can grow nutritious food for our community and our neighbors. Moreover, we can do it in such a way that leaves the soil and environment in a better place than we found it through regenerative agriculture practices. We imagine a world where diversity is evident, opportunities are plentiful, and divisions are crossed, all in pursuit of lasting unity. We provide a replicable model for other communities to utilize vacant urban land for their own farm and address the same issues of food justice. “If you can’t feed a hundred people then just feed one” – Mother Teresa
 
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I never intended to be a farmer. I majored in Political Science and Radical Political Economy and hoped to teach. Life had other plans. Long story short – I found out about Ms. Opal’s dream of an urban farm in Spring 2018 by accident (although I’m not convinced it was accidental). I had seen several other urban farming ideas come and go, but when I met Ms. Opal I knew that this was something I wanted to be a part of. The rest of 2018 was spent doing research, developing a business model, working on the lease agreement with Tarrant Regional Water District, and trying to find funding. The rest is history, as they say… We held our ribbon cutting ceremony on February 15, 2019. We didn’t find funding right away. We had in kind donations – a shipping container (our “barn”), some tools, and some seed – but no money. Ms. Opal is fond of reminding me, “We’ve done so much with so little for so long that we can do anything with nothing.’ By April, the planting beds were finished (we started with one acre), we planted our donated seed, and harvested our first produce in May. One of our fellow farmers market growers overheard me tell someone we were a non-profit urban farm and said “all farms are non-profit”. I guess we’re not that unique… Our business model is: ten percent of our produce goes to area food banks. The remainder is split – ideally 50/50 – between retail (farmers market) sales and subsidized (neighborhood) sales. The retail end helps the farm become financially stable. The subsidized portion is to dedicated to local communities without access to fresh produce. The retail sector was closer to 90% in our first year. We had to have money to keep the farm going. Paychecks were usually few and far between and much smaller than hoped for. We weren’t close to following our business model and our mission felt out of reach. October was a bleak month. My savings were gone, the house payment was due, and our mission was far from being achieved. I told my wife that maybe it was time to do something else. I felt like a failure. She looked at me and said, “Give it one more month. This is where God wants you to be.” I don’t wish to preach but I have to tell you what happened the next day. A grant came in from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Dee Kelley Foundation that paid our bills through the end of the year. I quit worrying about the finances ever since that day. There always seem to be “enough”. In December 2019 we were able to receive grant monies since we were able to show production records from our first year. That allowed us to make some significant investments going forward as well as increase to variety of produce we sell. In our first year, 2019, we produced a little over 4000 pounds of produce. In 2020 we increased our yield more than twofold to 8200 pounds. Through our work with the Tarrant Area Food Bank and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for WIC, we were able to bring our subsidized sales percentage to 49%. Covid was a challenge for everyone in 2020. However, it had several positive impacts for Opal’s Farm. Our volunteer hours increased as folks found out the farm was a great place for safe, outdoor activity. People also began to pay more attention to where there food comes from and how it’s produced. We’ve developed new relationships on both the retail and subsidized sides of the business model. Donations to area food banks have increased to almost 15%. More people are aware of Opal’s Farm. We have tremendous opportunities for “teaching moments” that we might not have had without the pandemic. The greatest lesson I’ve learned in the last two-plus years is that we have an amazing food justice community in DFW – growers, activists, organizations, and advocates – who work hard to end food insecurity and help all of us live better, healthier lives. Opal’s Farm is proud and honored to be a part of that community. This past year was incredibly difficult for me personally. My youngest son, Jeremy – a local visual artist and curator – passed in May. The farm has been my therapy for the last few months. I’ve always told people about our little oasis in the middle of the city. It means even more to me now. Ultimately, Opal’s isn’t just about the food. It’s about community and people. There’s something special that takes place at the farm. I call it community.
 
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I don’t often get a whole week off at one time! Wow! That’s a difficult question. I’m not really into all the “touristy” stuff. Life is pretty simple these days. One of my biggest joys is simply sharing dinner with friends. Something happens when people break bread together. I’m an introvert but I’m most comfortable with others, especially new people, while eating together. I thought I’d make the rounds of my favorite eating places. Then I realized it would take longer than a week. The food doesn’t have to be tops on my list for favorite places. The memory associated with the place is what I love. When it comes to great food I’d have to stop by Spiral Diner and Bakery on Magnolia and Melt Ice Cream for dessert. Much of Jeremy’s artwork can be seen at several of the places on Magnolia. Jay Wilkinson painted a huge mural of Jeremy on the outside of the Hop Fusion Brewery. Jay is a incredible artist and friend. Jeremy did the murals inside Hop Fusion. I’d take them to Ol’ South Pancake House for a late night breakfast so we could watch the slightly inebriated coming in after the bars close. It’s cheap entertainment! I”d have to take them by Mariachi’s at 4th and Sylvania (right up the street from the farm) for some of the best Mexican food in Fort Worth. I’d have to take them by Opal’s Farm of course. The Cowtown Farmers Market is a must stop for the best local produce in North Texas. Then I would have to introduce them to Fort Worth culture – the idea I can go to the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo and walk over to the Kimball and Amon Carter museums is one of the things I love most about Fort Worth. I can drive five minutes away from my house in the city and suddenly be in the country. You have to love it…
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
We definitely have a lot of shout outs to give! We have been blessed with a dedicated cadre of volunteers, mentors, and sponsors who have helped make Opal’s Farm a reality. First, Opal’s Farm wouldn’t even exist were it not for the vision of Opal Lee – our namesake – and Unity Unlimited, Inc. At 94, Ms. Opal’s activism is still providing hope and inspiration for for us all. It was her work in the city and the Community Food Bank that led to the donation of a free lease from the Tarrant Regional Water District for the farm. Then there’s our mentor and friend, Charlie Blaylock, with Shines Farmstand, He has been with the farm every step of the way – from the initial planning, our first sales at the Cowtown Farmers Market (our retail outlet), and our expansion in the coming year. We could not ask for a better mentor and friend. I don’t have enough space to list each of our friends of the farm who have helped us along the way – Grow SE, Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration, Blue Zones Project Fort Worth, Container King, Zimmerer Kubota, Home Depot Store #8521 are just a few.
Website: www.unityunlimited.org/opalsfarm
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/opalsfarm/
Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/showcase/opals-farm
Twitter: @opalsfarm
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/unityunlimited
Nominate Someone: ShoutoutDFW is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.
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6:00 AM on Christmas Morning

6:00 AM on Christmas morning…

The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise. The darkness is silent and still – “not a mouse was stirring”. Even the freeway sounds are absent this morning. The temperature dropped below freezing last night in honor of Christmas I’m sure. It was seventy degrees here in North Texas last Monday and the weekend promises more of the same: but that’s tomorrow and this is today. I’ll pull my coat a little tighter, have another sip of steaming coffee, and relish the quiet.

I think back to Christmas 1982. At 4:00 AM my ex (she wasn’t my ex then just so you know…) shook me awake. “I think I’m in labor”.

I turned over and asked, “how far apart are the contractions?”

“I haven’t timed them yet”.

“Oh okay. Let me know when the next one comes”, I said sleepily.

I had awakened enough to know I needed to head upstairs to the bathroom. As I walked past the picture window along the stairs, I saw the snow coming down hard. Only about half of the chain link fence was visible. “This is not good”, I mumbled. When I returned to bed, she told me she thought it was a false labor. I crawled back in bed and fell back asleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later and once again slid out of bed and headed upstairs to make coffee. As I passed the window once again, I noticed that only the pointed tops of the four-foot fence were visible. I opened the back door to check on my car. All I could see was its blue roof poking through the snow. The driveway and the alley were covered in three feet of snow and even larger drifts. This really wasn’t good…

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Adrian, our oldest, woke up and he and his Mom came in the kitchen. She put down and he promptly ran to the living room to see what Santa had brought. I poured the coffee and went into the living room. My Christmas morning excitement was tempered by the realization that my ex might really be in labor.

The snow continued to fall – and fall and fall and… You get the idea. Denver was in the middle of a “hundred year” blizzard.

About 9:00 in the evening my ex looked at me and said, “I really am in labor now”. The contractions were now seven minutes apart. I knew there was no way we could get my car out of the drive. I called 911 and explained our situation. Apparently, labor is not an emergency. It would be a four to five hour wait for an ambulance and we were told to go the nearest hospital labor and delivery rooms. I figured I’d been through one birth already. I mentally prepared to deliver a baby at home. I prayed – a lot!

There was a knock at the door about thirty minutes later. A gentleman had responded to the pleas for citizens with four-wheel drive to ferry paramedics around. Three paramedics greeted me as I opened the door.

We gathered go-bags and our son together and filed out through the path the paramedics had made to the door. They assisted my poor wife who, at 5’3”, was trying to make her way through the four feet of snow. Once to the care, the 6 of us (and all the paramedic kits) piled into an old Jeep Waggoneer. The driver informed my very pregnant wife that between contractions she would have to reach outside and keep the snow of the windshield as the wipers didn’t work. Of course, they didn’t…

We found ourselves in a strange hospital with a strange doctor who had obviously been there long past hi original shift (he was a bit cranky). We were just getting settled into the labor room when the nurse said, “it’s time”. My wife was wheeled down to the delivery room and I changed into scrubs. Less than an hour later I was holding a brand-new bundle of joy – Jeremy Alan Joel.

I slept in a nurse’s lounge that night. When I returned to my wife’s room, I was greeted with a Christmas gift that I’ll never forget – Jeremy in a red stocking with a Santa hat on.

When Adrian, my oldest son, was born, parenting didn’t seem as difficult as we thought. Then we had Jeremy. We’ve often joked (kind of…) that Jeremy made his appearance in the world with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other demanding to be fed NOW. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

Sitting here on Christmas morning I’m reminded how blessed I am. For thirty-seven years I was given the gift of a son I miss dearly today. I was also given a Savior – God With Us – to walk me through the grief I have today. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who know what losing a child is like. I have a God that knows my grief even more so – “This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and Only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help and put the world right again” John 33.16-17 (The Message).

My son was a brilliant artist (our first home had the marker and crayon marks to foretell this), but his greatest achievement was threefold – Baillie, Izabella, and Lucas. Today I will think of the wonderful gifts he left us. The gift I offer him is honoring his gift to me.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jeremy

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“The common Christian understanding that Jesus came to save us by a cosmic evacuation plan is really very individualistic, petty, and even egocentric. It demands no solidarity with anything except oneself. We whittled the great Good News down into what Jesus could do for us personally and privately, rather than celebrating God’s invitation to participate in God’s universal creative work.” – Fr. Richard Rohr

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