Sola Gratia Farm Grows Good in CU

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The author selling Sola Gratia produce at the farmer’s market

Here in Central Illinois, we’re surrounded by prime farmland—miles and miles of crops, primarily corn and soy, growing on some of the most fertile soil in the world. And yet, approximately one in seven adults and one in five children in our community does not know where their next meal is going to come from. This disparity is what the founders of Sola Gratia Farm–visionary members of St. Matthew Lutheran Church and Faith in Place—were responding to when they created this farm in 2012.

Sola Gratia means “by grace alone.” We are a small nonprofit farm founded with the overall goal of building a regional food system where high-quality, locally grown produce is available to everyone, especially those at an economic disadvantage. A big part of our mission is our donation work: we are committed to share at least 10 percent of our produce with regional hunger-abatement organizations. We work with partners like the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, Jubilee Cafe, Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, Little Free Market, Mobile Market, and others to make our produce available to folks in need in our community. We also usually surpass our donation goals, as we’ve donated between 20-30 percent of what we produce each year over the past several years.

When we first broke ground at Sola Gratia Farm, we were a very small organization. We farmed four acres, generously made available to us by St. Matthew Lutheran Church, with one farmer, one farmhand, some basic equipment, and a lot of volunteer help. From the beginning, our farm has been supported in large part by our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, through which community members who believe in our mission can purchase a “share” in the farm in the winter and receive a box of seasonal vegetables every week throughout the growing season. In our first year, we served 80 CSA members while donating a little over 5,000 pounds of produce to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.

Since then, we’ve striven every year to accomplish more towards our mission of reducing hunger—and that doesn’t just mean donating vegetables. In order to make Champaign-Urbana a place where no one goes hungry, we need to address the reasons that healthy food is often not accessible to people with low incomes. In most cases, it’s a combination of factors, including that it’s too expensive, sold too far away, or requires too much prep time. For families with children, the barrier is even higher, as many children are hesitant to eat vegetables, and it’s not worthwhile to spend limited funds on something that some members of the household might not eat. To truly respond to these factors, we need to go further than just donating food, so we’ve developed partnerships with many different community organizations that work directly with those in need to understand how we can be more fundamentally supportive. One such partnership with Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has allowed us to help create a Farm to School program in Urbana schools, so that children from pre-K through high school could have opportunities to learn how to grow and prepare healthy food and build lifelong skills. Another partnership, with Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office, Urbana Park District, and Channing Murray Foundation, supported the collaborative creation of Solidarity Gardens, a community gardening project to support home and community gardens alike in growing more food for food-insecure folks in our community. We also partner with organizations all across the community to host farm tours, cooking classes, and other events to build community around good, healthy, accessible food.

In order to do the work we do, we also need to be good stewards of the land. We utilize organic and regenerative practices on all our land because we know that if we don’t, we will eventually run out of capacity to produce high-quality produce for our neighbors. Through cover cropping, rotating crops, and other sustainable measures, we replenish the soil and build it up for future seasons and future generations.

Sola Gratia farmland

We’ve grown a lot since our founding! We now farm about 15 acres, have 200 CSA members annually, and donate around 15,000 pounds of produce a year to our ever-growing list of hunger-alleviation partners. In fact, we are starting to strain the bounds of what we can accomplish on our current land. We’d like to expand into more perennial crops, like fruits and nuts; use more long-term sustainable practices; and have more capacity to use our farm as an educational space. This hasn’t been an option until now because we’ve been renting our land, so we could lose access to it at any time—and, indeed, five of the acres we currently farm have been sold to the City of Urbana to build a fire station. But excitingly, we are in the process of purchasing 29 acres near our existing location to develop into a permanent, sustainable community farm! (If you’d like to support that effort, we are raising funds to be able to start making our new vision a reality next year—check out our website (solagratiacsa.com)!)

According to the most recent numbers from Feeding America, one of the premier sources of food insecurity data in the US, Champaign County continues to suffer from a 10.5 percent food insecurity rate. We’ve made progress since 2012, but there are still thousands of families in our community suffering from hunger–and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made their struggles worse. We are dedicated to continuing to do this work until there are no individuals going hungry in our community.

Fiona Munro is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for Sola Gratia Farm. You can reach her at SolaGratiaOutreach@gmail.com.

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