Growing up in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis, Gibron Jones was immersed in urban farming. As early as six years of age, he has memories of growing food and spending time with his family cultivating the small plots of land in his North City community – yet instead of instilling in him an appreciation for agriculture, the experience gave him farming burnout.
“My foundation of growing and producing food started when I was six,” Jones recalls. “I decided then and there that I would never grow food again. However, I came home one day to visit family and got back into it, and I realized that growing food was only one part of the equation, and I needed to learn more.”
Jones had had an eventful career outside St. Louis: first working in communications for the Wu Tang Clan, and then working in architecture, which ended up taking him to Austria for a project where he lived on a pumpkin farm. Spending time on the pumpkin farm helped him reconnect to farming, but he had no plans on returning home for anything more than a visit.
However, something stirred in him when he came back to Walnut Park. It wasn’t just the pull of family; Jones certainly had a desire to be close to his aging parents and nephews, but he couldn’t help but feel that he was being called back to his hometown for a larger mission. All around him, he saw people in the community where he grew up eating unhealthily, children struggling with obesity and diabetes and members of his own family getting ill because of their diets. He may have vowed he was never going to grow food again all those years ago, but seeing such need and knowing that he could use his skills to make a difference made him change his tune.
“One thing I noticed is that, in north city and other communities of people of color, people are eating what they traditionally eat, and those foods are not always prepared the best,” Jones says. “I remember making some pesto and some salad and a few other things for a function for parents at a charter school, and they would come in and ask, “What is this?” I would tell them, and they would say, “I don’t eat anything that is green.” I didn’t understand, and I realized then that there is an education component. Just because people like certain foods doesn’t mean they need to eat them all day. I decided then and there that I was going to stay. I could go back to New York, but I wouldn’t have as great of an impact.”
Since making that decision to stay in St. Louis a decade ago, Jones has made good on his promise to help build a more healthful food ecosystem in his north St. Louis community. He began urban farming again, participated in educational outreach with St. Louis Public Schools, founded a nonprofit called Hosco Foods and got involved with the North City Food Hub, an organization founded six years ago through a USDA grant program.
A year ago, Jones took over North City Food Hub, renaming it the North Sarah Food Hub and expanding its mission. His idea is for the hub to have multiple elements that work together, including a processing kitchen where he and his team will make items that can be sold to the community; a grocery store where those items will be available; and even an affordable commissary kitchen that will serve as a business incubator for folks who are looking to start a food businesses but don’t have the funds for their own space. As he sees it, these different facets will mutually enforce one another, amplifying the hub’s mission to make possible real change in the community’s food system.
In early March, after a year of planning and putting things together, Jones was well on his way to realizing that vision. The North Sarah Food Hub had just received its health inspection and was preparing to open. However, his plans for the hub quickly shifted when the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed itself in St. Louis. With the help of Niche Food Group chef Gerard Craft, Jones pivoted the hub’s mission from grocery store and commissary to an operation dedicated to addressing food insecurity. In particular, the hub has become a center in the effort to feed students and families of St. Louis Public Schools who had previously relied on the State of Missouri’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program to provide at least one meal during the school day.
Jones is not disappointed that the North Sarah Food Hub’s mission has been temporarily altered. In fact, he hopes to continue feeding those in need even when schools resume. As he sees it, the COVID-19 outbreak didn’t create need as much as it exposed it, and he feels that he is uniquely positioned to serve because of the commitment he’s made to his community.
“I could’ve gone back to New York ten years ago, but would I have had as great of an impact as I could here in St. Louis?” Jones muses. “My decision was to stay here and serve people in my community because this is where I’m from. St. Louis people, you’ve got me now.”