Birmingham, Alabama, is a city that smells like soul food and tastes like home. A place where old-fashioned local cooking happens on the same block as culinary innovation. An area that four 2020 James Beard Award semi-finalists call home. At the center of the Magic City’s food scene is a small farm. This teaching farm, where kids learn about food from seed to plate, is about to get a whole lot bigger. Jones Valley Teaching Farm announced their plan to build a $7.58 million Center for Food Education right in the middle of urban Birmingham.
Jones Valley has deep roots in Alabama’s red clay. Since they first broke ground in 2007 on their 3-acre lot in Downtown Birmingham, they have sprouted six more locations at schools around the city’s metropolitan area. They teach students about sustainable farming right in their neighborhoods. Jones Valley offers its students a hands-on approach to learning the process of farming because healthy habits begin at an early age. Their Good School Food program reaches over 4,500 students per year from pre-K to 12th grade, and by working with the Alabama public school system, their full-time teachers blend outdoor learning with the everyday curriculum. Amanda Storey, executive director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm, told The Business Download in an interview, “I want learning to come easier because you’re doing it in this really cool experiential way. I want students to be successful and understand that there are so many employment opportunities around us that have to deal with food, and so as a pathway to careers are important.”
Their STEM-based after-school programs teach children about planting, harvesting, cooking, and selling produce. The programs empower them to learn by doing, and the combined efforts of their farms, teachers, and students harvest over 18,500 pounds of food every year. Their student-run markets are open 240 days a year, and these programs give kids experience in math and science skills as well as leadership and language skills. Jones Valley harvests the benefit of developing these skills because 25% of their staff are graduates of their Good School Food program! As a nonprofit, one of the ways they help serve their neighborhoods is by creating these employment opportunities.“What has always been the case is always unemployment, it’s always poverty– you know, is the root of so many of the things nonprofits are trying to create solutions for. So my whole feeling as a nonprofit, is let us be part of that larger solution. And by creating employment opportunities, we can still create these wonderful educational models,” Storey shared.
Of course, learning looks extremely different during the global pandemic, so Jones Valley debuted their first virtual course, Camp Grow . It was a free digital summer camp for grades 6-9 for the underserved Woodlawn and Bush Hills neighborhoods and by partnering with The Woodlawn Foundation, Jones Valley built a mobile app so students could access the program from home. Wifi hotspots with unlimited data were provided so that all students could attend the summer camp.
Each week of camp included videos of farming techniques, recipes, writing assignments, and interviews with local chefs – including a barbecue lesson with pitmaster and James Beard Award winner, Rodney Scott. “We have seen kids dig up their backyards from March till June and plant food,” shared Storey, later adding,“Kids are so resilient, and they have the skills, and they say ‘alright I can’t come to the farm for a couple of months. I’m just going to do it in my backyard and share it with my neighbors.”
The success of the virtual program even led to parents and teachers to ask if Jones Valley would conduct similar online classes for adults. Storey admitted, “I think virtual [instruction] is actually going to be a component for us forever.”
Programs like Camp Grow and Good School Food are part of the reason Jones Valley Teaching Farm won the Produce Marketing Association’s inaugural Impact Award in 2020. The award comes at a time when the non-profit farm is planning to grow larger and sow new seeds in the community. Jones Valley will expand on its mission to educate the community when it opens the doors to its new, multi-use Center for Food Education in downtown.
The facility will feature an education area as well as a farm wing, Storey shared. The education section will house a teaching kitchen, an industrial kitchen, and classroom/event space, while the farm wing will house all of the farm’s production. It will be an area “just for processing and all of the farm labor that has to happen to make the program work,” she explains. Additionally, Jones Valley will still be “operating an almost 2-acre site of the teaching farm which is the actual farming (row beds), and so flowers, orchards, fruit trees, bees, you name it.”
Storey recalls when the organization began its capital campaign for the project saying, “We’ve been operating on this downtown farm in a trailer for 10 years, and a couple of folks even said “they’re trying to do something bigger than what they’ve what they’ve normally done,” so it was very rare for us to be bold enough to get out there and do something like this, but we believed in it so much.” Last April is when she says the organization began pitching to donors. In just 10 months, Jones Valley had raised 91 percent of its $7 million budget and held around 45 sessions with donors. “And a lot of it is because of how proud our donors are and what we’ve been able to do with the funding they’ve given us in the past – in terms of our impact,” Storey noted.
However, Jones Valley ceased fundraising in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Storey said that she had concerns about how her organization and others would survive, but did not want to ask for funds during the height of the pandemic. After overcoming the hardship of the spring and summer, she says that the group has been able to get back to fundraising and has raised an additional $100,000.
“I feel confident–we’re about $500,000 away from our original goal, and then we’ll have more money to raise through a public phase next year, we haven’t even gone public yet,” said Storey. “Right now we just needed to get the bones of the structure in and purchase the property that we currently are operating.”
The project is made possible in part by a New Markets Tax Credit from Hope Enterprise Corporation (HOPE). Senior Vice President of Community and Economic Development at Hope Enterprise Corporation Kendra Key told The Business Download, “We chose to invest in the Jones Valley Teaching Farm because it is such a unique project–it is a community gem. It is a project that will facilitate entrepreneurship–they have a wonderful model that leads many of the students to become apprentices in the program, so we very much appreciated how very special this project was to the community and the students in the Birmingham city school system.”
Closing calls on the deal began last fall with the expectation that a deal would be reached in January of this year, Key remarked. But several challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, set it back. “The fact that this project has gotten across the finish line in this climate makes it even more special,” she said.
“It really was like a jumpstart in many ways, and it was so and still is so helpful to have. [This] level of investors and partners kind of is the team rooting you on to get you there,” said Storey. She estimates that Jones Valley has about 50 donors.
The Birmingham Business Journal reported that ArchitectureWorks, a Birmingham-based architecture firm that planned Jones Valley’s Woodlawn High School Urban Farm, has been tasked with designing the new facility. Hoar Construction, also headquartered in Birmingham, will head construction. Storey says that Jones Valley currently employees 24 people and that she hopes to reach 30 in the next year or two. As for job growth after that, she says, “I think that’s the exciting part–thinking about the growth and what could happen around jobs.”
“I saw Jones Valley as an opportunity for the first time in my life to be able to work at a place that was really dealing with core root issues–meaning creating educational opportunities and long-lasting skills for young people to know how to do something that could save or change their life forever,” Storey said. And she says she doesn’t plan to leave her job anytime soon–not until someone who has been positively impacted by the program takes on the role based on their desire to help others.