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Sweet Potato Project Seeks To Create Community In St. Louis From The Ground Up

Being an entrepreneur takes more than just having what you think is a “good product.” It takes marketing, development, being social, and most importantly, mentorship. And, you have to be willing to build it from the ground up. But where do you start? For Sylvester Brown, you go with something that’s plain and simple: sweet potatoes.

“Sweet potatoes, I’ve eaten them all my life. Once I found out that the sweet potato is related to the yam, which comes from Africa, I thought ‘Oh, here’s a nice cultural tidbit that I can help the kids also – I can drop in some history. Where they came from, their legacy, what they’re about,” he says.

Born and raised in St. Louis, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter came up with the idea for The Sweet Potato Project a few years ago after he spent time working with Smiley Books, which is owned by radio host and writer Tavis Smiley. He became plugged in to the idea of the “black agenda,” which included bringing back disadvantaged neighborhoods through community involvement. He realized that it was up to his own community to figure out how to raise strong leaders and empower itself, rather than waiting on a handout.

"It moved me to a point to where I had to do something. So I thought, 'Well, I couldn’t do anything national but I could darn well do something locally, and I can darn well do it with a few kids.' I made it really simple – ‘We’re going to plant, we’re going to turn the produce into a product’ - and people started to get it,” he says. 

Partnering, planting and cookies

He began by partnering with the North Area Community Development Corporation to raise funds, and reached out to teens from low-income backgrounds to be part of the first class. Last summer, the 15 students planted their crop on land provided by Alderman Antonio French, and spent eight weeks listening to speakers, taking field trips – and prepared to sell their sweet potato cookies that eventually resulted from their yield.

This year, the project increased its fundraising efforts, and received grants from the Incarnate Word Foundation and World Wide Technologies. They extended the program to nine weeks and expanded to another lot in The Ville owned by Alderman Samuel Moore.

The sweet potatoes can take care of themselves once they are planted, but do need an occasional weeding. It’s something that 19 year-old Charnel Hurn and her fellow coworkers don’t mind doing after class, like they were on a mid-August Thursday.

“A lot of programs may teach you how to play basketball, or teach you how to cook – but we circle around everything – how to be a better person, how to cook, how to plant, entrepreneurship. It teaches us everything. It’s like a variety of things that we’re learning all at one time in the little bit of time that we have,” she says.

Hurn participated in the project last year and is overseeing the cooking team. She says that the program has shown a lot of progress– their bi-weekly stipend has improved, there are more field trips and more teens are involved.

That includes 19-year-old Jason Fitzpatrick, who heard about the sweet potato project from his stepdad, who thought it would be a better alternative than just hanging out this summer.

“Me learning how to do this is going to help me a lot because now I can plant food of my own, instead of going to the microwave," he says. "I’m learning a lot from the program. It’s kind of weird because it feels like school to me, but it’s teaching me many different steps.” 

Growing things to go beyond the plate

Mike Sorth is the director of Gateway Greening, a gardening and urban agriculture nonprofit. They give grants for youth groups to start their own gardens, and he’s seen firsthand how growing your own food goes further than being beneficial for your plate. 

“There are lots of business opportunities that come out of agriculture, and we have a long history of agricultural companies in operating in our region," he says. "Building on that shouldn’t be too foreign people once they start to think about it.”  

Now that the summer is winding down and the potatoes are almost ready to be picked, Sylvester Brown sees this as just the beginning.

“If the adults are driving down the street and they see our lot with a sign on it that says ‘Sweet Potato Project #1, Sweet Potato Project #2, Sweet Potato Project #10, then they start seeing the logo on the products in the stores, then the lightbulb starts to come on ‘Wait a minute, that was grown right here in North St. Louis. I believe that we are creating a template to reform urban areas all over the country.” 

After the harvest, expect to see more cookies, which will be sold around town this fall.

Follow Erin Williams on Twitter: @STLPR_Erin