If you happen to be driving along the 8-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard that begins in Wellston and ends in downtown St. Louis, it wouldn’t take too long to realize that there aren’t a lot of options for purchasing fresh, healthy foods in and around the neighborhood. But this urban food desert is on the verge of change—thanks to the efforts of the Beloved Streets of America and its vision of community stabilization, according to Derek Lauer, who is the architect coordinating the master-planning for the nonprofit.
“Beloved Streets of America was started by a gentleman named Melvin White, and it was his vision to renovate every Martin Luther King Boulevard in cities throughout this nation,” Lauer explains. “He’s been working on this in St. Louis for about six years now, and I became involved a few years ago to first help design Legacy Park as a part of Legacy Corner.”
Located at 5901 Martin Luther King Blvd., Lauer points out that Legacy Corner is an important building that will serve as the beginning point of this revitalization project. Not only will it house the office for Beloved Streets of America, but it also will have a space for urban agriculture, as well as a culinary school that will support a market/café.
According to Lauer, the nonprofit’s vision includes taking old buildings and converting them with local labor into places for food production, not just for these neighborhoods, but for others in the larger St. Louis community. “The urban agriculture aspect has really taken off!” he notes. “We will be partnering with Washington University as a guaranteed purchaser of thevegetables and herbs that are hydroponically grown in what was previously an abandoned building for use in its campus restaurants, and with its food services in time for the upcoming fall semester. This partnership will help to reduce Washington University’s carbon footprint and bring better nutrition, economic activity, and high-tech jobs and training to an impoverished neighborhood.”
Lauer describes the process of growing the food as using a nutrient film technique that covers the roots and delivers nutrients to the plants. The system will include solar power and wind power, and heat that is generated by the lighting will be reclaimed to help turn the wind turbines. And once the nutrient-filled water used for the vegetables is depleted, it will then be recycled to grow ornamental plants for use along the street streetscape of Martin Luther King Boulevard as a part of the beautification aspect of the project.
“Once we are producing vegetables, we also will establish the culinary school, which will educate young urban people—who are out of work, out of school and out of prison—and provide them with a job skill and a career, as well as a place to live, as there will be some apartment units in Legacy Corner, too,” Lauer says. “And then after the culinary school is operating, we will open the Market Café, which will give the local neighborhood a place to purchase vegetables, as well as sandwiches and other lighter fare that is being produced right there in the building!”
Lauer says the current markets in the area are quick-shop types and the food products that they offer are not healthy choices. “There are only a couple of corner markets, and they are very far apart, hard to get to and have very little offerings that are of very low-quality,” he notes. And with this project, a farmers market also will open Aug. 23 in Legacy Park at the second annual Legacy Walk, commemorating the March on Washington.
Future plans of Beloved Streets of America include taking the St. Louis model to 16 other cities in the U.S., starting with the urban farming piece, Lauer says. “We are revitalizing old buildings, using local labor, partnering with the educational institutions, providing job-training and ultimately being able to provide food in neighborhoods that are nutritional deserts."