The best way toward world peace might be the same route as to a man’s heart — through the stomach. At least that’s the way Linda Proffitt sees it. The impassioned peace activist, whose not-for-profit Global Peace Initiatives has served Indianapolis for six years, has long believed that peace cannot be attained until the most basic human needs are met. To that end, her organization has developed and nurtured gardens in schools, faith communities and neighborhoods throughout the city — with the purpose of feeding the hungry.
Now she’s ready to crank it up a few notches. And with the help of a nationally known champion of urban farming, a local philanthropic fund, the town of Southport, Indiana and legions of volunteers, she is celebrating the opening of Peaceful Grounds Café and Farm Market: A Center for Agriculture and Sustainable Living.
The multimillion dollar community development includes plans for a café, commercial kitchen, farm market, training center, and — and, Proffitt points out — the first home of Global Peace Initiative.
Bold and big
Proffitt’s vision for Peaceful Grounds is bold and big. But a late-summer 2011 visit to the abandoned concrete facility in Southport would have revealed a less-than-promising future. Decrepit buildings sheltered families of raccoons. Broken glass and other detritus littered concrete and a thin, grey surface that, after years of abuse and neglect, could hardly be described as soil.
But Proffitt pictured something different: “I see a place that will employ a lot of people: 20 to 30 working on the demo farms, 16 to 20 people in the restaurant.”
She summons up sharply focused images: a group in the teaching kitchen learning to can tomatoes; a wall of vertical lettuces tended to by high schoolers; workshop students learning a new vocabulary — vermiculture, aquaponics, mycoscaping — with hands-on practice caring for, respectively, worms, feeding fish and growing mushrooms; local restaurateurs shopping for from-the-field produce for their evening menu; a potter’s wheel demo in full spin; a parking lot packed with school buses and cars.
Proffitt acknowledges that her picture of a multipurpose center of sustainability will take three to five years to complete. “This redevelopment project is ongoing; it’s a work in progress and incubator for other business ventures. The end product may look quite different from the landscape we see now. I want to be receptive to what comes along — and welcome partnership and collaboration with others.”
It’s an approach that has served her well as founder and director of GPI, which was incorporated in 2006.
A perfect fit
GPI’s efforts to grow food for the hungry have produced some 47 gardens in Indianapolis, including Light of the World Christian Church, Fay Biccard Glick Community Center at Crooked Creek, and Emmerich Manual High School’s STAR Academy for Agriculture and Environmental Science.
Major financial support for GPI has long been provided by the Efroymson Family Fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Proffitt considers Jeremy Efroymson, the foundation’s vice chair, one of GPI’s informal founders.
In 2009, Proffitt and Efroymson traveled to Milwaukee to visit Growing Power, a not-for-profit organization that encourages and aids people and communities in growing their own food and building food security. The two met with founder and CEO Will Allen. The former pro-basketball player and son of a South Carolina sharecropper has been in the national spotlight during the past few years. His work garnered a genius grant from the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation, an invitation to the White House to join First Lady Michelle Obama in launching her “Let’s Move!” program, and — in May 2010 — a listing in Time magazine’s 100 World’s Most Influential People.
Education and training are key components of Allen’s mission, so to expand and spread the message of the Good Food Revolution, Growing Power has established regional centers in the eastern half of the United States. The criteria for becoming one of Growing Power’s regional training centers are fairly stiff, and include a clear demonstration of promoting and pursuing social justice.
“There’s only one Growing Power. Lots of people would like to work with them, but few are willing and able to go through the process. In that 2009 meeting, Mr. Allen indicated Global Peace Initiatives would fit as a regional training center for Growing Power, because of our commitment to social justice and strong leadership,” notes Proffitt. “That we’d grown food for six years just to feed the hungry demonstrated our commitment.”
“We also knew that we needed to go through a multi-step process in order to formalize this relationship,” she adds. Key GPI volunteers studied at Growing Power’s Commercial Urban Agriculture program. As a regional training center, Peaceful Grounds will not only offer local trainers, but will also bring in the star power of Will Allen as the lead trainer for Growing Power’s From the Ground Up workshop.
The next part of the process was finding a home for the center. Proffitt met Southport Mayor Dr. Robin Thoman at an Indianapolis Spirit & Place event in 2010. Southport was looking for a stakeholder to redevelop three acres of a blighted property that hadn’t been occupied for 10 years. Their meeting resulted in the signing of a 10-year lease in July 2011.
“We owe the existence of our site to the political leadership of Dr. Thoman, who had the vision to bring the project to this city. He gets it,” Proffitt says. “Our center is a good match for Southport.”
Thoman agrees. “Peaceful Grounds is a perfect fit for our side of town. The south side has a strong agrarian past. We’ve been less fortunate in finding community gardens and local farm markets. The new center will fill this niche and bring people to Southport.”
From the ground up
“From the ground up” also describes the transformation of concrete plant to working farm. The lease may have been signed and sealed, but the property was far from ready to bring forth fruit in its first season. Proffitt knew that while the property had passed Phase I and II environmental testing, before they could grow food, they had to first create healthy, safe soil.
“This is so important, she says. “Many people in urban environments suffer because in their neighborhoods, safe soils may not be a certainty. Even the possibility that soil may be contaminated makes it a brownfield until tested otherwise.”
To grow on concrete, they would have to develop rich, nutrient-packed soil. So they made a livestock investment — of worms: 150 cubic meters of worms, to be exact. It’s not hard to believe that the three wind rows, each 1 meter high and 50 yards long, contain millions of worms grazing on nitrogen-rich compost (local food scraps) and hiding in carbon (wood mulch). In the process, they eat their body weight per day, cast what they eat, and double in number per month. The end product is a highly fertile growing medium. “Right now, we’re creating worms and worm castings just as fast as we can,” says Proffitt.
Proffitt is confident that the farm center will fit right into the Southport community and serve it well. In fact, she reports that already residents are excited about the worms. “They’re fascinated that there’s something wonderful going on here after 10 years of vacancy.” She expects that neighbors won’t have any complaints. Unlike other farm livestock, “Worms don’t smell or make a lot of noise.”
Even community businesses are volunteering to become part of the new food system. “We’re tapping into the waste stream,” says Proffitt.
For example, the farm’s compost counts on apple pumice from Adrian Orchards and wood chips from Ponder’s Tree Service — and EM Company delivers wood pallets that volunteers are turning into tables, produce, stands and other useful structures for the farm.
More than business, financial and political entities back the project, however. Peaceful Grounds is truly a grassroots effort, with overwhelming support from volunteers. Proffitt recounts that from September through October 2011, more than 725 people, including individuals, university students, corporate employees, and even military personnel, have contributed time to grow soil and clean up the property. She estimates the value of this in-kind volunteerism to be $250,000 for 2011.
“Peaceful Grounds is happening because volunteers are taking an interest. It’s a phenomenon. Once people come to the site and see what we’re doing, they get really excited. Everything we do is volunteer-driven. Our efforts are a labor of love for many people.”
She recalls a volunteer day last fall: “We had 100 volunteers come to the farm, and the parking lot was completely full. For 10 years, the place was abandoned. Nothing happened, and then one day 50 to 60 cars are in the parking lot. Peaceful Grounds is creating a destination point in Southport.”
The peace-food connection
This phenomenon synchs well with Proffitt’s leadership approach, which is based on recognizing the miracles that come her way and then acting on them. Born in Indiana, Proffitt spent the latter half of her childhood in south Florida and returned to Indiana to go to college and then practice social work. “I never thought I would be farming, but when food pantries are empty, creative genius takes over. I’m proud to be an accidental farmer. It’s become a way for me to take care of the basic needs for people and teach them to garden and increase their capacity to help themselves.”
Food, she explains, is a prerequisite for peace. Summoning up Maslowian theory, she says that if people are hungry, conflict is likely. “When I talk about peace, I like to talk about what creates peace rather than the absence of peace. When basic needs are met, people can then fulfill their potential. There’s less likely to be conflict. Hunger prevented equals peace sustained.”
Proffitt doesn’t dwell on the fact that the world may have a long way to go to achieve this peace. Instead she continues her journey step by step and capitalizes on the growing awareness of and interest in food issues.
“I like this movement to buy local,” she says.” We’ve looked at the world economy, and have realized that we have to support our own economy. Green industry, sustainable living, gardening: These are all ways that we can strengthen our country.
“These are not new ideas. I would like to think that people will begin to grow more of their own food. During World War II, Indy had 44,000 victory gardens. I hope that more people can relearn how to grow their own food and, in doing so, promote an environment of peace.”
From canning to composting
Peaceful Grounds’ grand opening conference and Growing Power workshop are set for the end of March (see box for details). At press time Proffitt reported that registration numbers were fulfilling expectations and expects the grounds to host a full house. Proffitt is also pleased that registrants are coming in from many states.
That Will Allen will be giving the keynote speech Friday evening and leading the two-day “From the Grounds Up” workshop is a big draw. But, says Proffitt, so is the lineup of breakout sessions throughout Saturday and Sunday. Attendees can choose from canning how-tos, cheese-making, composting for safe soil and more. A private reception for Allen, dinners, and tours of local farmers are also on the schedule.
Sessions will also address sustainability issues beyond food security. “A food system is more than just the place where the food grows,” notes Proffitt. “This event is a great opportunity for people to experience not just the workshop and gardening, but sustainability issues, as well. Peaceful Grounds is a multifaceted learning center, a mixed-use space not only to teach the values of food security but also a broader sustainable lifestyle.”
Learn by doing
Proffitt wants to have an infrastructure in place as soon as possible, but for now growing soil is the priority. In the meantime, contractors are providing bids for the buildout of the café and commercial kitchen. “Peaceful Grounds Café will serve up healthy, local foods and our commercial kitchen can be used for processing, conducting workshops, and serving small businesses such as food trucks or caterers.”
Proffitt checks off other features: a central market and food hub for exchange from farmers and restaurants; four-season growing environments, an indoor vertical farm, and an area for artists. “We have lots of intentions,” she says.
The embrace and pursuit of intentions informs her view of leadership and community activism. “It’s almost like a pitch-in Thanksgiving dinner — where the event as a whole is based on what comes to the table. Every initiative is different, fluid. You learn how much you can do only by doing it.”
Peaceful Grounds’ Grand Opening Conference
At Peaceful Grounds: A Center for Agriculture and Sustainable Living
167 Van Dyke Street; Southport, IN 46227
March 30-April 1, 2012
March 30: Friday Private Reception with Will Allen – $75
March 31 – April 1: Saturday & Sunday full workshop includes all meals and keynote speech by Will Allen – $275
March 31: Saturday-only workshop and dinner with keynote speech by Will Allen – $175
March 31: Saturday Grand Opening Celebration Dinner only $50
April 1: Sunday-only workshop $120
Workshop Breakout Sessions: Composting For Safe Soils, Aquaponics, Hoop House Construction, Mushrooms, Kitchen Gardening, Kiln Building, Cheese Making, Community Project Design, You Can Can
More info: globalpeaceinitiatives.net