Jackie Joyner-Kersee discusses a greenhouse

Jackie Joyner-Kersee discusses a greenhouse project with a few of the children involved in her urban farming initiative.

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series on former athletes involved in agriculture.

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Jackie Joyner-Kersee is known for athletics, not agriculture.

But she is looking to make a difference with an urban gardening initiative that impacts hundreds of young people in her hometown.

“We have an Olympic-size vision,” she said.

She certainly knows something about that. Joyner-Kersee has six Olympic medals, including three golds, in the long jump and heptathlon.

Something she admittedly didn’t know a lot about was agriculture. Growing up in urban East St. Louis, she realized at a young age that there was something missing.

“I didn’t realize that I had grown up in a food desert,” she said in an interview with IFT. “We didn’t even know what a food desert was.”

Joyner-Kersee took an interest in nutrition while preparing for a career in track and field. An examination of detailed journal entries she made while growing up reminded her of the dearth of healthy food choices in the inner city.

“I didn’t realize how important food and nutrition was,” she said. “But then I realized it made a big difference in my performance. When the local grocery closed down all we had was the corner confectionery.”

Her realization of the importance of a healthy diet led to her involvement with urban agriculture. Beginning about 10 years ago with 60 leased acres in northern St. Louis, she relocated the mini farm to an even larger tract across the river, in her hometown. The main structure is a large greenhouse where young people learn about agriculture while growing vegetables and flowers.

While awareness of food and nutrition is one goal, the project transcends that. She is as proud of the educational opportunities the farm offers in other areas. She sees it as a critical component of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“I didn’t want just an urban farm, but a way to expose young people to opportunities in this space,” she said. “I thought it would be great to see how we could instill that knowledge in the kids. That allowed us to make the connection with ag and hopefully plant science to get young people inspired to want to go to school. It gives them a look at agriculture in a different way. It sparks interest in a lot of young people we’re working with.”

The urban gardening program is a growing part of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, which among other things provides educational opportunities for inner-city children. University of Illinois Extension has partnered with the foundation in the gardening initiative.

“That is definitely of interest. A lot of people on the JJK Foundation board of directors are very interested in getting more urban agriculture and access

to fresh produce,” said Grace Margherio, a local foods and small farms educator who has been helping with the ag project. “A lot of the kids have some connection to someone who has a garden. It’s been good for them to connect with family members who do this thing too.”

Margherio said that about 200 children are involved in the project during the school year. This summer there were about 50. The children not only grow and pick the vegetables, but they also take part in learning how to prepare the food.

“I was a little bit surprised at first how much they liked it,” Margherio said. “A lot of adults said those kids won’t eat these vegetables. But we’ve made zucchini pancakes, quesadilla, salsa and things like that.

“Some of them are a little bit afraid of insects. It’s funny how some kids don’t want to get dirty. The littler kids don’t mind it, but some of the older ones don’t like that.”

Joyner-Kersee believes the ag project can help plant interest in children.

“It’s teaching our kids some entrepreneurial skills and financial literacy,” she said “It’s a way for me to bring the community together.”

The same passion that drove her to excel in athletics is evident in her latest venture. She is striving to make a difference in her hometown, which has for years been economically distressed and crime-ridden. It is consistently listed as the most violent city in the United States.

She is a believer that education is key for a renewal in her hometown, which was once heralded by the National Civic League as an All-American City.

“Our ultimate goal is to have a research place,” she said. “I’d like to see this as a pathway for young people to go to college.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.