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Louisville mayor’s plan to defund environmental agencies could worsen food insecurity

A farm worker works in the soil
Anaya Katlego
Steep budget cuts to the agencies would hit emerging Black and brown farmers in need of support, according to Louisvillians who work with those groups.

In west Louisville, where fresh food is hard to come by and there’s a lack of grocery stores, some Black and brown farmers benefit from free or low-cost support from the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation district and its cooperative extension program.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg’s proposed budget effectively eliminates funding for two local agencies that help farmers working to address food insecurity.

The agencies subsidize native plant gardens or high tunnels for growing vegetables, and they educate people new to gardening and growing plants. Both the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and the extension agency offer free soil tests for local residents to help check the soil for lead and other chemicals.

LeTicia Marshall is a fifth generation Black farmer and the founder of the business BearFruit & Grow in the Valley Station neighborhood.

Marshall facilitates fresh produce distribution from urban farmers to communities in west Louisville and across the county. She’s also an active member of the grassroots Food in Neighborhoods coalition, a group of community activists and organizations that works to improve farm and food systems in Louisville.

She said the agencies helped her get high tunnels at a discount, identify invasive species, and learn how to protect the larger ecosystem while farming on her land. Marshall said many farmers need their services, but defunding them would hit growers in food insecure areas especially hard.

“If I don't grow the food in my backyard, or if I don't go get a community plot this year, we might not eat, right? Or we might not have access to green pepper or tomato that tastes good, you know?” she said.

Community agriculture in urban areas helps alleviate the pressure of food insecurity, and gives people a sense of agency over the food they can grow and eat.

The district and the extension agency are part of the federal government's nationwide networks to support agriculture in local communities. The extension agency manages several community gardens and offers youth development programs.

Marshall said cuts to the agencies would hurt emerging Black and brown farmers in underserved communities. She said it would also cut access to affordable resources and information, including reimbursements under their programs.

“And so, yeah, it's a hell of an impact, and [Greenberg] should be ashamed of himself,” she said.

The mayor’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1 would cut $83,200 from the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and $305,000 from the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension, which would leave just $30,000 of funding for each agency.

The district’s chair, Sarah Beth Sammons, said the city used to have a goal of having food security and improving food deserts. She thinks the decision to effectively eliminate the two agencies doesn’t match that goal, she said.

“And so, when you take away the funding sources to even improve that, like what are they left with? It seems like it's just making a hopeless situation even more hopeless,” she said.

Taylor Ryan heads Change Today, Change Tomorrow, a local nonprofit that focuses on food access for Black communities, and recently opened a farmers’ market in west Louisville. She said not funding programs that help food-insecure areas with poor soil quality makes access to fresh food harder.

“The west Louisville soil, it’s eroded, it’s toxic. The answer for food access isn't just, ‘Oh, start a garden in your yard,’ because you can't. You have to have a raised bed and you have to have soil and access to all of these additional items instead of just being able to sprinkle some seeds in your yard,” she said.

Without city funding for the conservation district and extension agency, it would be “near impossible” to offer the current level of services — even with state and federal support, Sammons said. Community gardens would not receive help, and technical and educational support services would go away, she said.

Last year, Greenberg’s proposal for this year’s budget set aside $6 million to subsidize opening new grocery stores downtown and in west Louisville, but that was cut from the final budget approved by Metro Council.

Metro Council members are currently making changes to the mayor’s budget proposal, and will pass a final version next month.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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