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Urban agriculture brings not just food, but community pride, to Peoria's South Side

Budded Mattah Facebook page
Budded Mattah operates plot gardens on Peoria's South Side, giving people who don't own land a space to grow their own produce. They also operate a demonstration garden meant to show a better use for vacant lots scattered around the neighborhood.

Ryan Foster wasn't always on board with taking a leading role in helping urban agriculture take root on Peoria's South Side. In fact, he resisted the idea at first.

Foster owns a mattress shop and a catering company in Peoria. He's also a gardener, but he didn't consider himself someone who could roll out that knowledge to community gardening on a wider scale.

But he said he eventually came around to the idea after he was asked to help out with setting up an agriculture incubator. He said that's when doors started opening for what would become the Budded Mattah Urban Agriculture Project.

Budded Mattah Facebook page
Ryan Foster of Budded Mattah

"I finally was actually doing a prayer with the leader of the South Side Mission, Reverend Craig Williams. And at the end of it, I was like, 'hey, do you have any land? I feel like I'm supposed to be going and starting this urban agriculture thing.' And they had two abandoned gardens with hoop houses," Foster said.

Foster's group set up a plot garden and a demo garden in the existing spaces.

Many people on the South Side are renters, and don't have permission to set up a garden on the land. So Budded Mattah set up 10x20 foot plots are configured to give community members a common space to grow their own food.

Budded Mattah also has an additional plot garden set up at the Harrison Homes.

The demonstration garden is a proof-of-concept for an alternative use for the vacant land scattered across the neighborhood. The plot is about the size of an average abandoned lot where a home once stood.

"There's a lot of them on the South Side. They just kind of sit there. So the idea was get into people's minds that you can buy up one of these lots for pretty cheap and turn them into a garden. And so we turned one into a garden," Foster said.

Foster said food grown in the demonstration garden was sold at area farmers' markets. He said it's not only a way to show people they can feed their families with urban agriculture, but make additional income by selling off the excess produce, too.

"The hope is that they want to take a step further and get one of the abandoned lots in their neighborhood and grow food, and then be like a supplier," Foster said. "And the vision is if you get enough suppliers, then you can justify having a co-op grocery store where the people are supplying the food and selling it, which then would eliminate the food desert."

Budded Mattah Facebook page
Budded Mattah sold produce grown in South Peoria plots at the Kellar Station Farmers' Market this year.

Foster said the average vacant lot owned by the city is sold for less than $1,000. He said Budded Mattah isn't asking to have land donated, but rather wants to get South Side residents prepared to buy up the land and put it back to productive use.

The benefits aren't just economic, however.

"Something interesting happens when you're growing your own food. Like, I have a garden at my house. My kids don't really like vegetables, but when they see it grown, they want to eat it. And then they want to learn how to cook with it. And the same thing happens when you have your family growing on a plot," Foster said.

That encourages not only healthier eating, but also a genuine sense of pride.

It's what true empowerment is," Foster said. "There's empowerment when they're feeding their family what they grew. It's indescribable, like the excitement, because it's something that most people and a lot of these neighborhoods don't think of. Like, I can grow my own food and feed my family with it, and you don't have to rely on different things. And so it gets rid of that whole hopelessness or helplessness kind of mentality."

Budded Mattah is just one of numerous community gardening or urban agriculture projects taking place around the city of Peoria. Foster said the network of community gardens is working collectively to get more fresh foods into the local food pantry system.

The larger vision, though, is self-sustainability.

"You can keep giving someone a banana, or keep giving them oranges and stuff, but then tomorrow, they're going to need the same thing," Foster said. "But if you come from within where they're producing it and then they're actually generating keeping funds within the neighborhoods, instead of going out. The long term thing would be to turn the South Side into a production facility."

Foster said that includes hydroponics facilities to allow year-round growing, and a processing facility to create value-added products like pickles that could be shipped out to store shelves.

Foster said Budded Mattah doesn't view other community gardening projects as competition. In fact, he said he will help anyone will to start one copy their exact model.

"The point is just to get more, as many gardens and people growing as possible. So if they're thinking about doing a community garden, we would like to help you get that started," he said.

Click here for more information about Budded Mattah.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.