Life finds the doers and the dreamers in sometimes mysterious ways. Often those mysterious ways are borne of joy and opportunity. Other times, they are birthed through grief and hardship.
For Leah Michelle Lee, the owner and operator of Growing Food Growing People, a nonprofit founded in 2019 and based in St. Louis, MO, her pain and loss led her to fulfill her life’s true calling. Though she had never farmed before, Lee found herself called to the land, especially during the toughest moments as her father passed away in 2015.
“Yeah, in my dad’s transition he just brought to light, my eyes were opened to the disparity even more in my community,” Lee said. “And I, I was just a willing vessel to be used to, to reintroduce my people to the soil, as well as provide healthy food in an area where it just does not exist within a one-mile walking radius of most of my neighbor’s home.”
“And, of course, that would include my [own home],” she continued while highlighting an all-too-common fresh food disparity in many urban American centers like St. Louis.
Photo Courtesy Leah Michelle Lee
A year after her father’s passing, as a function of her grief, Lee became interested in growing after a friend invited her to help with a patio garden. In her own words, this “blew her mind,” and she got right down to growing her own small garden.
From here, life led her to the local YMCA — the “heart of St. Louis,” she said — where she took over its nearly defunct urban garden and took the program from three beds planted to more than 30 in just one season.
More interesting than any of these stops along her road to Growing Food Growing People is why she’s undertaking the trip at all.
“You find out that the food is just a byproduct of interacting with the soil. There’s really a bigger connection and more powerful magic that’s available for us if we choose to do so,” Lee said, pausing before continuing, as if to signal that she genuinely cares about what’s coming next.
“It’s not just that you can get the food and the herbs. But if you want to go a little step further, you can get even more.”
“And that is how Growing Food Growing People is coming about. We’re growing food together, but we are growing together,” she continued. “As people, we’re growing together spiritually and just really reconnecting to our roots, reconnecting to, you know, where we came from.”
Photo Courtesy gfgp-stl
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, making her gardening outlet at the YMCA no longer available because of lockdowns, Lee dove deeper into her dream of Growing Food Growing People.
“We were locked down. So I was like, well, I’m just gonna do it in my backyard! I’m just gonna turn my backyard into this garden. And I just started buying plants buying the seed; I mean, I went cuh-razy,” she exclaimed, laughing. “And for a moment, I just thought I was losing my mind. And now that I look back on it, I get chills because I was literally being set up for some of the greatest moments in my life so far.”
From this backyard garden, a community of like-minded people in the neighborhood began to meet, grow, meditate, do yoga, and commune with one another.
Growing Food Growing people began to find its way, and Lee did as well — her way to helping people.
Photo Courtesy gfgp-stl
“That is what I love most: I love serving. So, I get to do what I love all day, every day. So it doesn’t seem like work,” Lee said. “It just seems like I’m just busy. I’m busy. But it’s not really work.”
“Because I absolutely love my nails being dirty, and having on my sandals and my feet being super dirty. When I get home like I love what I get to do,” Lee said, pausing one more time as if savoring the previous statement. “I love what I get to do.”