How GROW Local South Texas gives a voice to Corpus Christi farmers and growers
By: Kathleen Naderer
Photos by: Debbie Noble
While farmers’ markets and community-driven agriculture are far from new concepts, they have experienced a surge of popularity in recent decades as many Americans have joined the “food revolution” in an effort to improve their health. Interest in healthy food choices continues to increase as more scientific studies reveal the impact artificial chemicals, processed foods and industrial farming have on the human body, the environment and the economy.
In a city where heavily processed food is extremely convenient and widely available, GROW Local South Texas Founder and Executive Director Aislynn Campbell has worked hard for the past five years to strengthen the local food movement in Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend. Many local residents have seen her at the weekly Corpus Christi Downtown Farmers’ Market and the Learning Garden at Tom Graham Park. However, most do not realize the obstacles she and the members of her organization have faced in order to make locally sourced food, as well as food education, more accessible.
Gardening and agriculture have influenced Campbell’s life since she was a young girl growing up in Taft. “Both of my grandmothers were strong gardeners,” she recalls. “And in school, I had about 13 years of 4H club.” But her passion for nutritional, local food did not truly ignite until 17 years ago when she gave birth to her son. As she elaborates in her 2012 TEDx Talk, Campbell was shocked to learn the amount of hydrogenated corn syrup and other chemicals used in baby formula.
Additionally, Campbell’s work in public relations at Driscoll Children’s Hospital put her in close contact with pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Stephen Ponder, who promotes awareness of the childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics in Corpus Christi. His emphasis on the necessity of healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle encouraged Campbell to make greater changes in her own life.
So Campbell decided to provide fresher and cleaner food options for her son (and, later, her daughter) by creating a seasonal home garden, raising chickens for eggs and meat, collaborating with friends on a cow share and, of course, visiting local farmers’ markets in Rockport and Corpus Christi. However, the farmers’ market in Rockport dwindled down, eventually dying out, and the Southside Farmers’ Market was bogged down by regulations and appeared to have plateaued. She knew local farmers and backyard gardeners needed a new way to network and space to expand.
“Local food growers needed a voice,” Campbell says. “I knew that come hell or high water, I was going to make this happen!” Using her connections and public relations background, she organized the first Downtown Farmers’ Market outside the former Tango Tearoom in March 2012. “There were over 500 people at our first event, and we sold out in 15 minutes.”
The regulations that held back the Southside Farmers’ Market soon hampered the burgeoning one downtown. The local health department was not familiar with laws regarding farmers’ markets, which led to a massive amount of confusion. More challenges emerged after the Downtown Farmers’ Market made national news for all the wrong reasons: A misunderstanding led reporters to state that purchasing meat from the market was dangerous due to the extreme summertime heat, despite sellers taking proper measures to keep the meat at safe temperatures.
Although all of these obstacles happened within the first six months of its inception, the Downtown Farmers’ Market continued to grow thanks to the hard work of Campbell and other grassroots volunteers. “There are plenty of opportunities to do things – to start things – in our community,” she says. “But it’s not always easy. We have to work for a better quality of life rather than resign ourselves.”
Familiarized with farmers’ market regulations and cottage food laws, she reached out to local leaders and the health department to begin a dialogue. By opening up the conversation about permits and regulations, she helped streamline the process for farmers’ markets in the Coastal Bend.
These experiences sparked a transformation. The Downtown Farmers’ Market grew from a gathering of local growers to an advocacy group for the local food revolution. “Clean food, good food, pure food is as necessary to life as clean, good, pure water,” Campbell explains. “We can’t feed everyone, but we can reach a significant portion. We can help people understand how seasons and weather affect what you grow, how to have backyard gardens, how to raise chickens. And we can teach people to cook again.”
Thus, GROW Local South Texas emerged and began offering monthly education workshops, a community garden, BAWKtoberfest and other programs to the public. Developing and offering these educational programs comes with a price, however. GROW now requires more funds to hire staff, develop programs and purchase garden supplies than their annual Farm to Table Dinner can raise. So far, the organization (which received official nonprofit status in January 2015) has been able to offset these additional costs with grant money provided by the Coastal Bend Diabetes Initiative and Port Industries.
After five years of impressive growth, Campbell has decided that GROW will spend 2017 focusing on the best ways to sustain and maintain what it has accomplished. She also plans to delegate more responsibilities to other staff members this year. “If you want something to become a reality, you have to create it, grow it, help it reach sustainability and then pass it on,” Campbell says. “GROW needed a face for a while, but it’s now moving beyond that.” Campbell will, however, make sure that the branding and vibe of GROW continue to be that of fellowship and community.
Support local growers and get the freshest, most nutritious food by visiting the Downtown Farmers’ Market at the Art Center (100 N. Shoreline Blvd.) every Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information about GROW, email Aislynn Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.growlocalstx.com.