City Greens photo exhibit documents journey from farm to table
Photographs of food hang on the wall of the Catholic Charities Midtown Center's main hallway -- just picked beige squash and red tomatoes, prepared plates and dinner tables. Among them is a photograph of a young girl pushing a cart full of produce, smiling up toward the camera. Hannah McDonald, the subject of the piece, "Big Girl Groceries," has one word to describe what she thinks of grocery shopping.
"Fun," she says.
Hannah is the daughter of Nyree Thomas who, along with a dozen other community members, has photography on display at Catholic Charities Midtown's City Greens Produce, a farmers' market located at 1202 S. Boyle Ave. in the Grove.
The organization recently participated in a photography project run by the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Public Policy Research Center. Over 10, one-and-one-half hour classes, 10 volunteers learned the ins and outs of digital photography from local artist Lyndsey Scott. The photos taken over the four weeks of classes are on display at the center on UMSL's campus until March 3 and Catholic Charities Midtown Center until mid-April.
Upcoming at City Greens
*A new generator in the Supa' Fresh Veggie Mobile, a produce stand at Chouteau and Compton and 29th and Russell, means that volunteers can bring their cooking along with their produce. ("Smell sells. If you smelled it, you wanted to try it," said Bobbie Sykes.)
*The market is stocking meats from local farms. In winter, the market sells meats, cheeses, breads, nuts, coffee, tea and dry goods from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m., Thurs. The regular season should open in mid-May.
*Memberships are $100 for families with incomes over $30,000. Under that, membership is free.
Mel Watkin, the photography project director, founded the project in 2004, but the center has had a photography gallery since 1978. Inspired by Wendy Ewald, a photographer who first popularized passing out cameras to community members, Watkin applied Ewald's "model to working with community groups all across St. Louis." So far, the project has worked with 43 local groups, from the Old North Restoration Group to young Bosnian immigrants at a Mehlville middle school.
"I wanted to connect the work that (the public policy center) was doing with organizations and small governance and all kinds of social service groups in the city...with the photography they were showing," Watkin said.
Scott, trained as a painter, found her passion in community art projects soon after moving to St. Louis 10 years ago. While working on large-scale, collaborative art pieces on Cherokee Street, she discovered photography to be an empowering and relatively accessible medium.
"If you document the child in action, then they become a teacher," Scott said.
With City Greens, Scott said she aimed to have the cameras follow "all the aspects of the journey of food to the table." The 10 City Greens members who participated took their photographs primarily at City Greens and in the surrounding community.
Founded in 2008, the market offers fresh food from family farms around Silex, Mo., to City Greens' members at farm prices. Market coordinator Sam Giese said that the market had 400 members last season, 75 percent of whom qualified for a free membership through their reported annual income. The $125 donations paid by members with incomes over $30,000 help subsidize food that goes unsold.
The photos include images of the community garden two blocks from the Catholic Charities Midtown building, fresh produce cradled in hands, produce lining the market's Supa' Fresh Veggie Mobile trailer, Hannah pushing her "big girl" cart, glistening leafy greens and large slices of tomato begging to be eaten (slowly) and a kitchen table. In a time where consumption often means just opening a bag and eating, the photographs force one to slow down and examine what more than one volunteer called a "labor of love."
As a photographer, "you're trying to branch out, show people there's something important about this place," said City Greens volunteer Bob Harmon. "It was like trying to see something in the picture that had a purpose and a meaning behind it."
Harmon, who is 67 and has been volunteering with Charities Charities for over a year, points to his photograph of St. Cronan's Church, taken from the steps outside of City Greens. Directing his gaze outside, Harmon said his photography promotes the impact an individual can have on the community, all in relation to "a creator."
Thomas, who has began volunteering at City Greens late last season, said she found her "own time" in the hour and half classes. She discussed an old kitchen table, which she still owns, adorned with scratches and nicks, as a place where she took photographs as a youth.
"The table that I have, is the same table I grew up with it. I have a long history on my table -- cuts, scratches, everything. If you look at this table, it is worn down, but it is the strongest table," she said.
Scott's passion for art is driven by these stories, expressed in conversation and photography.
"These cameras go into people's pockets and they tell their story. It's a photo album of our city. We don't always run into each other, and there are so many wonderful people here," Scott said. "I've really enjoyed getting to peek in."
The Food We Eat
"Beets, mushrooms, eggplants."
"Everything out the garden, everything in the market."
"Okra! A lot of them didn't know that."
Giese and three volunteers are recounting vegetables Giese and other customers "didn't like" before they were introduced to volunteer Bobbie Sykes' cooking. Every Thursday of the regular season, Sykes and a roster of other volunteers cook adjacent to the market. Sykes' most popular items are her wraps, in which she "hides" vegetables. Even the pickiest eater comes back for seconds, Giese said.
"My grandkids say, 'I don't eat that!' I say, 'Yes, you do!'" Sykes said.
"They may have this perception that they would never touch a beet or mushroom, those look weird to me. But then you eat the wrap," Giese said, speaking from personal experience. To his credit, these days Giese will eat anything that comes into the market.
Throughout the interview, Giese and the volunteers drifted into appetite-inducing descriptions of past crops and dishes. Sweet pickles with onions, Daikon radish coleslaw, ribs, blackberries and countless other foods and dishes were described in detail, as each recounted his or her favorites.
Hannah says that her favorite food is lettuce. And in her cart, among the tan, purple and yellow vegetables, a burst of green shoots out, leaves of lettuce spilling out over the edge. Sykes said the photographs pay testament to an old cliche.
"A picture tells a thousand words," she said.
Johnny Buse, a recent graduate of Grinnell College, is an intern at the Beacon. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.