3 min read

Many of us don’t think twice about stopping into the nearest grocery store to stock up on fresh produce. 

But in some communities, residents are in “food deserts.” These are neighborhoods where residents have few or no options for buying fresh, healthy affordable food. They may have just one grocery store or no grocery store at all and have to rely on gas stations and convenience stores, businesses that don’t typically carry fresh food. 

Monika Owczarski is the founder, owner and operator of Sweet Tooth Farm, a Des Moines-based urban farming group that is working to fill the community’s needs created by food deserts. 

“We saw a critical need in the community for access to fresh food – vegetables, fruits, eggs and unprocessed foods. We thought, if not us then who?” said Owczarski. 

Sweet Tooth Farm is one of a few urban farming organizations to take root in Des Moines. “The city had never had someone ask for a side-yard lease to be for a commercial garden,” said Owczarski. “We started and never looked back. Every year we get a little bigger and better.”

Sweet Tooth Farm in the River Bend Community

Sweet Tooth Farm started in 2016 and since then has continued to serve primarily the River Bend neighborhood, as well as surrounding neighborhoods in north Des Moines. 

Owczarski grows “market vegetables” – produce that you would find at a grocery store. This includes greens, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, peppers, onions, garlic, strawberries, melons, herbs, and pumpkins. They’ve also started growing culturally specific vegetables that fit the needs of the neighborhood residents, such as certain varieties of eggplants, tomatillos and peppers, and now offer eggs. 

“We feel that is our mission to provide high-quality, fresh produce that isn’t a luxury item,” said Owczarski. “We don’t want people to have to choose between paying their light bill and buying fresh eggs.”

The produce is now primarily sold through the Sweet Tooth Farm website or via direct distribution at local community events. 

What is the Impact of a Food Desert?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers the River Bend neighborhood, and much of north and east Des Moines, a food desert.

According to a 2017 study from the USDA, almost 13% of the U.S. population lives in a food desert. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a nonprofit that has worked for more than 70 years to help children and families who live in poverty. According to their research, communities with food deserts tend to be low-income, have a lower population or have higher rates of vacant homes. Residents tend to face challenges such as limited reliable transportation, and a lack of grocery stores in the area and might face economic challenges that make spending more money on fresh or healthy foods difficult. 

The result is neighborhood residents who rely primarily on the processed and cheap snacks and processed foods found at gas stations and convenience stores. This in turn can lead to a host of health issues over time. Urban farming organizations, like Sweet Tooth Farm, can help bridge the gap between accessibility and fresh food.

C21SRE Impact and Sweet Tooth Farm

In the summer of 2021, Owczarski was informed by the city of Des Moines that they would no longer lease the lots she farmed on in order to sell the space to a private company looking to develop it. 

“Regulations and zoning don’t often meet the needs of urban farming,” explained Owczarski. “Urban farm lots don’t make the revenue that new construction does. Most people want things like this to succeed, but ordinances and regulations that were set up a long time ago may no longer serve the needs of the community.”

The team went from two acres of land to less than 9,000 square feet (a 90% reduction in space). Sweet Tooth Farm was in danger of shutting down. 

Chris Chiaramonte, a C21SRE REALTOR® and (at the time) longtime resident of the River Bend neighborhood, brought a proposal to help to the C21SRE Impact Board. 

The Impact Board spent months working with Owczarski to figure out the best way to support her urban farming initiatives and discovered Sweet Tooth Farm was really facing several challenges: finding viable lots in the city to farm on and creating infrastructure to do more with less space. 

Ultimately, the Impact Board voted to contribute $7,500 to Sweet Tooth Farm. This helped Owczarski purchase new lots, materials for the construction of a new high tunnel to extend the growing season and a trailer for the group’s new compost delivery service. New transportation equipment makes getting farming equipment to other lots much easier as Sweet Tooth Farm now has multiple lots in the River Bend neighborhood and on the east side of Des Moines. 

“I’m very privileged to do this work and I am not alone in this. So many people want to be part of this,” said Owczarski. “I’m happy that Impact can be part of propelling us forward as we do some really great things with food and land access in central Iowa.”

If you’d like to learn more about Sweet Tooth Farm or find out how you can help, go to sweettoothfarm.net

Here at Century 21 Signature Real Estate, we’ve made it our purpose to do more than just sell real estate. Our Impact program is an opportunity for C21SRE agents and staff to pool our resources and directly impact and improve the lives of people and families in our communities. The Impact fund is made up of donations from our agents and staff with a 10% match from the C21SRE company. The Impact Board Committee is made up of the broker/owners, six agents, one staff member, and a treasurer. Board members vote on how to distribute funds to local people and families in need and all funds go directly to the chosen recipients. Learn more at https://www.iowac21career.com/impact/.