Three questions with … Stephen Mackell, Mission of Mary farm manager

Until you happen on Stephen Mackell’s farm.

For five years across Twin Towers neighborhoods, the Mission of Mary cooperative have grown produce. A storage facility and a large garden are on Silver; two more public gardens are nearby.

Once grown, the food is sold below market prices to neighborhood residents or at market rates to all others, although supplies are limited.

Mackell, 24, of Dayton, a University of Dayton graduate, knows how misunderstood hunger in America is. Hunger here is rarely abject starvation, but more often “food insecurity,” he said. Food insecurity borne of being stranded in what some call a “food desert.”

Even the poor get plenty of calories — but calories from what’s sold at gas stations, convenience stores, beer drive-throughs and elsewhere.

“They’re terrible calories,” Mackell said.

Mission of Mary aims for something different, he said. Not just good food, but good neighbors.

“In this neighborhood, we know a lot of the families,” he said. “We really want to grow what people want and involve them as much as we can.”

If you don’t live in the Twin Towers area and still wish to sample Mission of Mary’s organic fare, go to MissionofMary.org and sign up. If the waiting list isn’t full, you can sign up to pick up some of the produce at market prices.

This is an edited transcript of a recent chat with Mackell.

Q: What’s the mission behind Mission of Mary?

Mackell: “We essentially take vacant lots in the Twin Towers neighborhood, and we’ve been growing produce on them. This site (on Silver) is our storage facility. We’re building a new greenhouse. We have garden up here (to the south) and then two more kind of open public gardens.

“We put in organic produce and raised bed-gardening systems. And then we also create public green spaces, as well.

“We’re taking the vacant land that’s kind of sitting idle. People let us use the land for free or they give us the land and then we do our thing here. Typically, a few other gardens that we have, we have a zero-dollar lease with the owners. If there were homes there, they were demolished by the city, and either a church or a community-development corporation kind of picked it up and is managing the land. So they just let us mow it, garden it, tend to it in the meantime.”

Q: What happens to the food you grow?

Mackell: “We distribute the food in two main avenues. We have two different clienteles. The first and probably primary audience is this neighborhood. Our non-profit mission is food security and addressing some of the food injustice issues in inner-city Dayton.

“We saw this neighborhood as: They want to garden, they want to grow their own gardens. But they also want to buy produce and eat healthy diets. But they can’t access grocery produce, or organic produce at the grocery stores is too expensive — or not there at all.

“So we do a public market on Xenia Avenue, in front of one of our gardens during the season. And then we also have a membership program. … (Clients) can take a big bag of seasonal produce to their homes for the 20 weeks of the growing season.”

Q: You have other gardens, as well?

Mackell: “One of them is on Xenia Avenue, by St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It’s in the 600 block of Xenia Avenue. It has grown to where it’s around where five houses used to stand. So it’s quite a space — up to a half-acre of urban farming over there. Going on Xenia Avenue, it’s a fairly trafficked road. A lot of people get to see that.

“Our other one is about six blocks that way on Hawker Street. … That one is growing as well; it’s maybe close to a half-acre, too.

“I’ve been here for four years. The first year, when they were getting things going, there was actually a community of lay Marianists here. UD (University of Dayton) alum. And they kind of intentionally lived in this neighborhood and lived in one house together as a faith community. Out of their getting getting to know the neighborhood and some of their interests, they started gardening. …

“It kind of emerged over seven years. We’ve distributed food over the past five.”

Know someone who can handle Three Questions? We’re looking for behind-the-scenes-but-still fascinating Miami Valley residents with something to say. Send your suggestions to tom.gnau@coxinc.com.

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