DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Monika Owczarski, who turned a dilapidated city park into an urban farm, is now working to turn her Des Moines neighborhood into a place where nobody goes hungry.
She grows vegetables that are nutritious and culturally significant to the people of River Bend, many of them immigrants with children who attend Moulton Elementary, where students speak 30 different languages. In the summer, she works for hours before the heat sets in, again while her three kids nap, then again after they’ve gone to bed. She prices her produce based on what each person can afford, accepts food stamps and is happy to barter when people need to.
This month, she helped launch the city’s first community fridge and pantry. It’s stuffed full daily with free staple foods and is nearly empty each night. A roster of volunteers is forming to help keep the fridge tidy and stocked — because they share Owczarski’s commitment to eradicate food insecurity, a problem worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We just really believe that food should not be a luxury item,” she told the Des Moines Register. “We’re trying to make that a reality.”
Owczarski, the owner of Sweet Tooth Farm and a champion for her neighborhood, is a social worker-turned-farmer who plans to feed even more people by setting up a farm stand two blocks east on Sixth Avenue, along a bus route.
Owczarski, 30, says she feels like the business, started in 2016, finally found its footing in 2020, leaving her ready to take on new goals in a time of immense need.
“The whole reason we started this is to feed people,” she said. “People are really struggling, and that’s my main focus.”
The original Sweet Tooth Farm plot sits next to Owczarski’s home in what used to be Royal Park, once the smallest park in the city. But she, her husband, Rene, and their neighbors agreed there had to be something more useful than crumbling playground equipment and a basketball court with no rim where people loitered late into the night.
Determined to find a solution, Owczarski led a long-fought charge that eventually resulted in the city vacating the park and leasing the land. That rare result is largely thanks to her unwillingness to take no for an answer, said Ben Page, the parks and recreation director, whom Owczarski calls an early supporter.
“She’s a force, and she’s a positive force,” Page said. Lots of people come to the city with complaints, ideas and requests, he said, but Owczarski’s bold proposal was different because she put in the work to prove how it could benefit River Bend. She even got a relative of the Royal family for which the park was named to give their blessing.
“Everything that she forecasted could happen has happened — and more,” he said. “Every so often when I drive by in that part of the city, I just smile when I see what she’s done there.”
Before the pandemic, neighbor kids flocked to Owczarski’s place to help dig in the dirt and plant seeds. They came to play with her kids, ages 4, 3 and 7 months, and to see the beehive, which makes more than 50 pounds of honey each year. And, of course, to see the chickens.
“They’re rescues,” Owczarski laughs, but she’s not kidding. She got them from an Iowa processing plant that put an ad on Craigslist.
This year, what was a team sport has become more solitary. During warmer months, Owczarski kept herself company while working outside sometimes as late as midnight by listening to podcasts. She rattled off a dozen favorites: Code Switch, Reveal, The Endless Honeymoon Podcast, Dr. Death, Family Secrets, 1619, Hidden Brain, Boom! Lawyered, Fresh Air, Criminal, Ear Hustle, Eater’s Digest.
In those quieter, kid-free hours, it’s easier to recognize just how much she’s created in a few years.
“It’s come true in my life that if you want to be something, you just have to start being it,” she said. “If you want to see something happen, you just have to start building it.”
She is also steadily growing her network and knowledge of what she calls “collective farming,” a movement to share tools and tractors as well as labor and marketing to try to eliminate barriers and make everybody’s lives easier.
Most important, she said, her work is about creating a sense of community ownership. She stressed that nothing would be possible without her husband, those who helped launch the community fridge — Zakariyah Hill, Billy Weathers, Austin Neal and Rheya Spigner — and those who frequent the farm, including Lyssa Wade, Kennady Lilly, Kari Bienert, Brett McClavy, Nicole Winebrenner, Amy Brooks Murphy, Jacob Schroeder, Laura Rodriguez, Keri Thien and Aubrey Alvarez.
Janelle Mueller, a close friend and former Eighth Street neighbor, says Owczarski is one of the most well-connected people she knows because people truly want to be in her orbit.
“She looks at trends outside of Des Moines, she looks at the bigger picture, and that’s where her frustrations are … because making all this happen has not been easy,” Mueller said.
To Mueller, nothing symbolizes Owczarski better than the freshly baked bread she sells at her farm stand. Made with just a few simple ingredients, it’s become special to the people it feeds, she said.
“Bread is a common denominator throughout the whole world,” Mueller said. “But her bread comes with a great deal of love, caring and compassion for everyone.”