February 5, 2014

Melissa Contreras

The force of nature, she's the Miamian behind Urban Oasis Project's mission to make fresh, local, organic food available to all.

Sure, she’s a Yankee whose only exposure to tropical gardening was a year abroad in Nicaragua, but that was never going to stop Melissa Contreras from becoming one of Miami’s greatest champions of local, organic produce. In 2008 she founded the Urban Oasis Project, a nonprofit dedicated to making healthy food more accessible by teaching people to make and maintain food gardens in their backyards, especially in underserved communities. It’s been a labor of love fueled by fierce DIY determination—and perhaps a little provenance. “I think it comes from my grandmother’s Depression era mentality. She sustained a family of ten on a half acre’s worth of livestock and veggies,” says Contreras, who spread the gospel to South Floridians that they could transform their yards of useless, often environmentally harmful grass and ornamental exotics into mini-farms that also feed bees and butterflies. “Our recession in Miami was somewhat similar in how it inspired the return of victory gardens.” During one of her first volunteer installations for a Whole Foods cheesemonger at his home in Liberty City, Contreras had a vision of the neighborhood’s numerous vacant lots planted with crops to be harvested for a farmers’ market attended by its residents. That initial market sprouted more, from Brownsville to Tropical Park to a well-attended Saturday event in the Upper East Side’s Legion Park, where her nonprofit partner Art Friedrich sells baby greens and oyster mushrooms alongside vendors like Zak the Baker and Crackerman.

Now her group is embarking on its most ambitious project yet: a 22-acre organic farm at Verde Gardens, a LEED-certified, low-income housing development on the former Homestead Air Force Base. Cleared of overgrown, invasive species, the land supplies a cornucopia of tomatoes, arugula, broccoli, collard greens and cut flowers that are available to everyone at its market. Prepared food entrepreneurs also can rent its certified community kitchen staffed by Verde residents who were previously homeless. “We hope the employees are bit by the business bug, too, and start their own edible lines,” says Contreras.

When did you decide something had to change? My neighbors were feeding their lawns toxins that had been banned in Europe, and they were seeping into everyone’s water table. If people plant food in their yards, they’ll treat the land as a precious commodity. After giving a slide show on what I did with my humble property to a packed house at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, I knew a movement was born.

Who are your farming inspirations? Bee Heaven’s farmer, Margie, taught me everything about market displays, and talking to customers and teaching them how to cook seasonal items. She also made us the beneficiaries of the second annual GrowFest!, and I still volunteer for her. Gabriele Marewski, the founder of Paradise Farms, consulted on our first edible gardens and donated proceeds from a full season of her Dinner in Paradise series.

How does your organization operate? We occasionally receive funding and supplies, such as when Whole Foods donated a percentage of sales for a single day from one of its stores, or the city donates compost. But mainly we exists thanks to volunteer efforts. My husband César, whom I met in Nicaragua, has been our No. 1 volunteer. He grew up on a farm, so his skills have been invaluable. We’re constantly in need of time and money, whether a new tractor or farm manager. Most people only think about farm-related things, but we could use help in every facet like administration, finances and social media.

Now that farmers’ markets are everywhere, how do you think they will strengthen and evolve? We’re doing a spin on the food truck with a mobile farmers’ market. The idea came through aiding senior citizens who might not be able to get to regular markets, especially in low-income areas where free transportation is usually limited to medical appointments. But we’ll sell in all kinds of neighborhoods to raise funds for those in needier ones. People also thought we were crazy to do some year-round markets, but we slowly taught customers how to use summer tropical produce like Malabar spinach, and now they just expect it.

What’s your nonprofit’s main role in the community? We’re here to get a garden or market off the ground and then pass the baton to the individual or neighborhood. It’s more effective if residents are doing it themselves as opposed to outsiders.

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