When Gracie and Bob Cavnar launched the Recipe for Success Foundation in 2005, their main goals were to battle childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate and eat their food, and to provide the community with healthier diets. Today, their hands-on curriculum is the largest outreach of its kind in the nation, empowering over 4,000 children every month through various initiatives. But rather than sitting on their laurels, the couple became inspired to do even more. In the historic Sunnyside neighborhood of southeast Houston, they found the ideal location for an urban farm to expand their mission.
Thanks to a generous seed grant from Wells Fargo Foundation and support from the UnitedHealth Foundation and other corporations and philanthropists, the Hope Farms Showcase and Training Center came to life in one of the city’s largest food deserts. To further their important mission, Hope Farms instated a grant-supported program to train U.S. military veterans to become new urban farmers.
Hope Farms integrates farming, education and community engagement on seven beautiful acres where they use organic methods to grow a wide variety of crops. A constant work in progress, Hope Farms provides jobs and internships for neighborhood youth, cooking and gardening classes for all Houstonians, and operate an on-site farm stand that offers fresh produce, eggs and local honey.
“Hope Farms was always part of the vision of Recipe for Success, says co-founder Gracie Cavnar. “We knew that it would serve as training ground for us to work with people new to farming and expand the urban foot print of farms in Houston. In 2010 I came across research that showed how veterans with PTSD responded well to being on farms and farming, and that giving them the opportunity to grow food helped them to feel they were nurturing and providing substance instead of destruction. It’s a life affirming experience for them.”
The program select U.S. veterans as paid farmer trainees to participate in one- or two-year programs that teach sustainable horticulture, financial literacy, farm accounting, banking, marketing and sales, planning and product controls. Members of the Houston business community serve as mentors for the farmer trainees, who also benefit from coursework at Houston Community College to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to establish and grow their own urban farming enterprises successfully. “With Houston having the third largest population of veterans in the country, it seemed natural that we would focus on a veterans’ program,” says Cavnar. She refers to it as “turning warriors into farmers.”
To date, five veterans have taken part in the program, with many more on an unofficial basis as volunteers. If they decide to follow this path to entrepreneurship, the Recipe for Success team will help them find available urban land to start their own farming businesses while they continue to benefit from mentoring and small business incubation provided by established agricultural, commercial and academic partners. They also become members of the Hope Farms Co-op, a support program that offers advice and counsel, organic farming classes, access to equipment, and participation in the on-site farmers market.
The co-op will provide branding and distribution for their products to premium and wholesale buyers, CSA members, farm-to-school programs and other farmers markets. If they prefer to delay starting their own businesses, they will be matched to well-paying jobs at Hope Farms or other area operations.
On Veteran’s Day, Hope Farms will host a large fundraising event that will honor Montemayor and Katthage and will include a pop-up shop from Neiman Marcus, live entertainment, and brunch. The venue is also available for special events such as the dinner I attended in which Chef Ryan Pera prepared spectacular food with products sourced from the farm.
The veterans’ program will see significant growth in the coming year thanks to a grant from the USDA, the largest grant ever given to a veterans farming program in the country. “We will have 16 veterans going through a one-year full time training program and eight in a 2-year, part-time program,” says Cavnar. “One of our current veteran farmer trainees, Jose Montemayor, has said it best: ‘I want to do something not just to better myself, but also my community. I wanted to work in an environment that was healing and be more connected with nature.”
Eventually, the team envisions transforming more unused and under-used urban property into fully-functional, small footprint farms. “Hope Farms is the epicenter of all our nutritional education,” says Cavnar, “where any and all are welcome to take part in cooking demonstrations and buy affordable produce. It’s one of the main components of our community outreach and serves as much as an inspirational touch point as aspirational.”