Story and Photography by Mike Brownlee
Passion. That’s the word that comes to mind when speaking with Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield of No More Empty Pots. The pair works night and day to solve a problem that the people of north Omaha face each day—food insecurity.
No More Empty Pots is the result of a food summit convened in February 2010 by various stakeholders to address the lack of access to fresh, nutritious food in the area. Stakeholders from a variety of organizations, neighborhoods and businesses attended the summit,
all with the goal of curing the area’s sparse nutritional options.
North Omaha is classified as a food desert, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a census tract of land without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Fast-food restaurants and convenience stores are plentiful, but grocery stores
are sparse. This urban area is the largest food desert in Nebraska. It is larger than the numerous low population rural tracts scattered across the state.
“The northeast section of Omaha has the highest of any category you can speak of—crime, lack of education and lack of access to fresh food,” says Susan, a project manager for the organization. “We looked at it and said, ‘We can make a diff erence.’ Growing food is not necessarily relegated to rural areas. We can do it here in the city. Let’s teach people how to grow their food, cook their food and preserve their food.”
Th e food summit led to monthly meetings, which led to the founding of No More Empty Pots. But it was almost by accident.
“We didn’t plan or want to start a nonprofi t,” says Nancy, who founded the organization. “We wanted people to work together
doing what they were already doing. But the nonprofi t was needed to help organize everything.” Th e organization started with two main missions: to increase urban agriculture, and to work to create a shared commercial kitchen that would provide a space for a variety of entrepreneurs to use while launching or maintaining their businesses.
No More Empty Pots works with a variety of organizations, including Whispering Roots, the Tomāto Tomäto community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, Big Green Tomato and Big Muddy Urban Farm in furthering those and other goals. “Everything they do is about other people,” Michelle Moyes Dill explains during a break at a recent cooking demonstration at the No More Empty Pots and Tomāto Tomäto CSA program pick-up at the Charles Drew Health Center. “They get back to basics—making fresh food available. They want people in this community to eat and to eat well.”
Michelle teaches CSA program members—some of whom are able to participate thanks to grant funding from No More Empty Pots—ways to turn the fresh produce in their bags into tasty meals. “If you’re not used to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, you oftentimes don’t know how to cook or prepare the food,” Susan says between turns doling out bags. “This helps.”
Home base is a 19,000-square-foot building resting on more thantwo acres on 20th Street. Th e current reality of the building is a
few offices, conference space and open garage space. This will soon give way to the dream of two kitchen areas, indoor and outdoor
agricultural areas, event space, an outdoor patio and classrooms for job training as part of the Eleven 27 Project. The project aims to turn No More Empty Pots into an “urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone.” “Nancy and Susan have such enthusiasm and knowledge,” says Eleshia Teet, former director of the Butler Gast YMCA teen garden. “They explained what a food desert was to me and it opened my eyes. I’m thinking here in the Midwest that we have all this food grown, but I realized that our part of the city truly is a food desert. This a community in need of these fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s great to see the work they’re doing and their work to expand their services.”
About a year after founding the group, Susan and Nancy heard about the Gifford Park Teen Market Garden, and the pair reached out to leader Cynthia Shuck to see if No More Empty Pots could help the garden thrive. Nancy notes that the recent recession cut many teens out of the workforce, as adults became interested in jobs that were traditionally filled by teens.
The program was designed to help teen-focused endeavors, so Cynthia asked for assistance in grant writing and developing a teaching curriculum that would add business skills to the agricultural skills that the garden already provides. Thus, the No More Empty Pots Teen Entrepreneurship Project was born. Nancy, Susan and others worked to develop a curriculum that provides instruction on how to develop a business plan; marketing; daily operations; keeping financial records; and assessing the market. The project offers grant-writing assistance as well.
Along with Gifford Park, the project enlisted the Heartland Family Service Solomon Girls Center youth garden and Butler Gast YMCA teen garden as pilot members. “I’m not a teacher—I don’t have a background in education. I’m just trying to be a mentor to my kids,”
Cynthia says. “This curriculum really helps make that a lot easier and better for the youth involved. It’s really awesome!”
The Gifford Park garden is in its fifth year overall, and thanks in part to a grant No More Empty Pots helped secure, it has added hoop houses to its garden to lengthen the growing season. “They’ll have more to sell, and they can go to market at least a month sooner than before. In turn, they should earn more money,” Nancy says.
At the Solomon Girls Center, No More Empty Pots and Whispering Roots helped install an aquaponics system that allows leafy greens to be grown year-round. These greens are incorporated into meals, alleviating food costs. Eleshia and the youth at Butler Gast YMCA used the curriculum last year to market the vegetables grown by the teens, which were sold at the YMCA.
The pilot portion of the curriculum is complete, and No More Empty Pots is close to taking the program to the general public. There are plans to make it available—via the organization’s office or website—for mentors throughout the Omaha metro area to implement. The curriculum’s documents include a facilitator guide and student guide, a booklet to structure elements of a business plan, notes and more. “The curriculum is geared for teens,” Susan says. “There’s a lot of information out there for adults, business plans, etc., but nothing is targeted at the teen population. We can’t lump teens in with adult learners. The materials need to be tailored for them.”
Nancy notes that the project has helped teens help themselves. It has also helped them do good work in their community, which touches on a hallmark of No More Empty Pots. “Regardless of who you are, we believe self-sufficiency is important,” Nancy says. “Whether you’re a resource-poor teen in a resource-poor neighborhood or in a two-parent home and want for nothing, self-sufficiency is a skill we all need.”