Director of Farm and Operations takes on food inequality in North Linden neighborhood

Most mornings, Max Slater rises before the sun so he can begin tending to a farm that grows enough crops to fill the produce section in a specialty market (the 48 varieties currently in the ground include heirloom tomatoes, carrots, mustard greens, Swiss chard, radishes and on and on). There are also bee hives for cultivating honey, chickens and a pair of greenhouses complete with an aquaponics system, which combines conventional aquaculture (raising fish or other aquatic life) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water).

Despite the rural surroundings, however, Slater doesn't venture to sprawling farmlands somewhere on the outskirts of Columbus, but rather to the North Linden neighborhood just north of Downtown, where he runs Project AquaStar, a community farm and education center that operates as part of St. Stephen's Community House. Under Slater, who started in his current role 18 months ago, the farm, which has been in operation for roughly four years, has received a new lease on life.

In that time, the area dedicated to farming has doubled from a half-acre to a full acre, the crop variety has grown tenfold and the product output has quintupled, allowing the organization to launch a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where, for a small fee, subscribers receive a box of produce each week for 12 weeks. For each box purchased, Project AquaStar also donates one box to a North Linden family in need.

Slater said he hopes to double the number of subscribers, which numbered 20 on the first go-round, every season for the next year, capping it at 120, with another 120 boxes going out for donation. In addition, Slater has expanded the program's community outreach, which includes home consultations for North Linden residents who want to develop food systems on their property (gardens, rain-barrel water collection, etc.), as well as job opportunities for neighborhood youth. Each summer, the farm employs three or four youngsters age 15 to 17.

“You get it all. You get kids who have zero interest in being there and feel they have to be, and you get kids who love it,” said Slater, who was born and raised in Toledo and moved to Columbus in 2009 to attend Ohio State University, where he majored in City and Regional Planning and Horticulture. “It's an atypical job — farming in Linden — but it's like, ‘Here's an example of what work is.' … A lot of these kids come from households that don't have a lot of money. They might not have a lot of food. They might have eight, nine, 10 people living in a house. These kids become contributors to the house in a monetary way.”

The work also offers some respite from the violence that has become more commonplace in the neighborhood. “That's the reality in Linden; I think every week since the beginning of this year there's been one murder,” Slater said. Recently, a former worker was picked up on murder charges.

But there are more success stories than hard-luck tales, including one gentleman who was assigned to the farm as part of his community service and stayed on as a volunteer after completing his court-directed work. He was eventually hired onto the payroll and later left the program to attend college.

“We work on a micro-scale,” Slater said. “We work with individuals and families, and that [example] is hard proof that the model can work.”

On a larger scale, Slater hopes to influence both the Linden neighborhood and the city at large by getting people to consider issues surrounding food accessibility, particularly in underserved areas where a lack of healthy, affordable food options can negatively impact public health.

“We're living in a time where there's a push to be involved in community organizations and fly the 'resist' flag. I'm all on board with that, and I see a lot of independence in food sovereignty,” Slater said. “I think growing a garden is an act of protest. Cooking your own food is an act of protest. It's a way to kind of stick it to the system: ‘We're going to reject what you've given us. We're going to reject your food infrastructure that has led to diabetes and heart failure and obesity.'

“Obviously, you can't feed a community [as large as Linden] completely from within, but it's a starting point. And when you get people interested in these things, the effects can trickle down in pretty obvious ways.”