CARE Chefs on Tour: A Coffee Conversation with Atlanta Chef Asha Gomez and Plant It Forward CEO Teresa O’Donnell
HOUSTON Sept. 22, 2014 – Chef Asha Gomez, a James Beard nominated chef and owner of Spice to Table in Atlanta, joined the poverty-fighting organization CARE last week in Houston to raise awareness about global hunger. Earlier this year, Asha traveled to Peru on a CARE Learning Tour to visit successful development programs that are empowering farmers and fighting hunger.
Naturally, it made sense to visit Plant It Forward, a Houston nonprofit that gives economically disadvantaged refugees an opportunity to become self-sufficient through growing, harvesting and selling produce from a sustainable urban farm within the city of Houston.
Each farm has the potential to generate a fair wage for a family of four while providing premium brand sustainably-grown produce to Houstonians. Plant It Forward secures the land, selects, trains and mentors farmers while establishing their own urban farms to sell under the Plant It Forward brand.
Asha had the chance to ask Teresa a few questions about Plant It Forward and their mission last week.
Chef Asha Gomez: What led you to actually get this organization started?
Theresa O’Donnell: My brother and I and my sister-in-law started a software company 25 years ago and about three years ago we decided we wanted to do something to give back to the community. I called a local refugee resettlement agency here. They invited me to go to an airport pick-up with them, to pick up a refugee family that was coming in from Africa. And so I went, and it was one of those seminal moments where it changed my heart.
AG: And how did the idea for Plant It Forward come about?
TO: There’s a local organization here called Urban Harvest, which is a nonprofit that helps start community gardens. One of the founders had written an article in the paper talking about market gardening and how he thought you could make a living farming small parcels of land in the city. I thought “hmm.” So I called the refugee resettlement agency and asked if the refugees are farmers and they said: “Yes, they’re all farmers.” So that’s how it got started.
AG: So what were the first few years like for Plant it Forward?
TO: A church leased us three acres and we decided we would build out an acre and see if we could actually generate enough money for somebody to make a living. When they leased us the land, they also introduced us to 14 Congolese refugees, so they were our first training class. I hired a couple people who had been gardening in Houston for about 20 years to be the farm trainers and farm manager; I’ve never farmed. So we built out that acre of land and we made $50,000 that first year. And when we figured out it would work, we just started building more farms.
AG: And where do the farmers sell?
TO: They’re making all their income right now from CSAs (community supported agriculture). They each have about 30 customers that they deliver to every week. So then we can really enhance their income by adding local chefs to the mix.
AG: How closely do you work with your local chefs and restaurants right now?
TO: I have a grant out now so I can get a warehouse manager to take produce from the various farms and fulfill orders to the chefs. Our vision is that a chef will lease a portion of a farm and those farmers will grow only for that chef. And then the chefs will get all the produce off of that.
AG: And so the aim is really geared toward your refugee community here?
TO: Yes, it is. It’s a nice thing that we introduce local food to the community, but our main purpose is to provide a living wage to the farmers.