Conversation By: Kylie Cooper Photos By: Lillian Reitz
First, let’s start with a bit of background information. Where are you from and what are you up to now?
I was born and raised in Corpus Christi. My family has been here for four generations, so we have our roots here, with both my grandparents and great grandparents growing up and living on farms. I’ve gone out to enjoy other parts of the country at various points of my life, but I feel most connected when I’m back on this coast.
You were involved with Grow Local South Texas prior to moving away from the Coastal Bend, just in a different capacity. How would you say your experience then compares to your experience now as the Executive Director?
When the Downtown Farmers’ Market started in 2013 at Water Street Village, I was working as a Culinary Instructor for the Food Bank, appearing at these initial markets as “Chef Dave,” doing cooking demos with whatever the farmers brought. I had been living in NYC before that, doing market demos all across the five boroughs, and being part of the initial movement here in Corpus felt heroic, like we were the true pioneers of the local food movement. Being the Director suits me now because I can keep an eye on the big picture for the organization, which I see as evolving through conversations with partner organizations such as CCISD, Parks and Recreation, and Youth Odyssey, to name a few.
Why do you think an organization like Grow Local is so important to the local community?
Every city needs an organization to connect residents with the local and regional sources of the food they eat. Growing food is a hugely therapeutic and empowering pastime that improves the overall health of a community. Texans champion self-sufficiency, and what better way to demonstrate this than having a garden or backyard animals that can provide for your family?
What are some of the goals or new ideas you have for the organization in this new chapter of Grow Local?
Our board, staff, and I have created a strategic plan that provides us a roadmap for how we want to show up in this community. The first pillar involves providing education about growing, preparing, and eating fresh, nutrient-dense foods through programs such as classroom and school gardens, weekly after-school programs, summer camps, and online resources pertaining to the cultivation of local food. A big mission for us is to create a program that walks students through the full “farm-to-market” model, teaching not only gardening but also entrepreneurship and business skills.
The second pillar is to provide access to fresh, healthy foods produced by local farmers and small business owners. The program related to this is of course our Grow Local Farmers’ Market at the Art Center of Corpus Christi. And the third aspect of our plan is to continue growing our local food system by providing agricultural education for food producers, which we do through consolidation of online resources into weekly newsletters for our vendors, as well as an annual “producers conferences” held at the Del Mar Small Business Development Center. We have also begun managing local community gardens, including the “Garden of Grace” at First United Methodist Church, providing administrative support and hands-on instruction onsite.
How has directing and managing a non-profit organization been the last few months amid the global pandemic?
This pandemic has actually reinforced our function as an essential point of access for safe, healthy, fresh foods. It has been our goal to make sure the community has access to meat, eggs, and vegetables presented in a safe, open-air environment. We’ve also found that our education programs have adapted well to the online format, and we’ve been able to contribute a variety of videos and documents about seasonal planting, composting, raising chickens, etc., that we are building into a unique “Healthy Eating and Gardening Flexible/Virtual Curriculum” that will be of use for youth and adult education programs.
The weekly Downtown Farmers Market has grown into such a prominent feature of our local community. How have you seen this market grow over the years, and why do you think it has become so important to locals?
People want to be together, to be close, off-screen. We’d like the Farmers Market to be a safe, fun place for everyone to come, bringing their children and grandparents, regardless of interests. Post-pandemic, we’ll return to having live musicians, food trucks, and entertainment, in addition to farmers and food producers. One of our primary goals is to continue developing the partnership with the Art Center, collaborating on their family art time programs and expanding the weekly Market event to include more artisans and artists alongside our vendors. We want the market to not just be a place to buy food, but a place where you can have your next fun family outing.
I understand you’ve moved back to the Coastal Bend multiple times. What do you think keeps you coming back?
I feel like I got stuck by Poseidon’s trident as a young boy on the beach, and keep getting pulled back to this environment – by the skyline, the water, the coastal ecology generally. I love surfing, so I’m out in the water all the time observing the seashore and wildlife, but also keeping an eye on pollution and debris. A couple of years ago, I worked with the local Surfrider Chapter on a program called “Ocean-friendly restaurants,” presenting alternatives for straws and single-use plastics to local restaurants; I see Grow Local South Texas, like Surfrider, as another representative group offering the opportunity to live more in harmony with the natural world and conserve the beautiful planet we live on.
When you aren’t busy nowadays running a non-profit organization, how do you like to spend your free time?
I’m an artist by nature, and I love spending time with my fiancée Sarah Martin working on paintings and composing songs. Our evolving series is called “Earthworks,” and is about connecting humans and nature creatively, but also non-invasively. The question driving this project is: How we can be creatively engaging with, and also deeply respectful of, the Earth? The pieces are documentarian, with slight variations on themes, accompanied by music that arises as a response to natural sounds.