From Deserts To Dinner: How Food on the Move is Transforming Us

Raised bed with a group of people planting food
Author: C.L. Harmon
Category: Food | charity
Date Published: January 5, 2022

Com­mon Ground… it’s an inter­est­ing phrase we toss around dai­ly, mean­ing some­thing that can be agreed upon. But what hap­pens when some­one digs below the sur­face of that ground? One Tul­sa native decid­ed to do just that. And what he dis­cov­ered was the fer­tile ground where peo­ple could plant seeds that would not only draw oth­ers to com­mon ground but pro­duce a solu­tion to a grow­ing need com­mon among all communities.

All Things Are Possible

“It’s a sense of call­ing to ser­vice,” Han­son says of this mis­sion, which is what prompt­ed the cre­ation of Food on the Move. It was a deci­sion to engage and help strength­en his com­mu­ni­ty, he added. Being for­tu­nate enough to be able to pur­sue his pas­sion as a musi­cian and artist while grow­ing up in Tul­sa gave him the unique per­spec­tive of those few who can turn their pas­sion into their day job. 

In a sense, this made him “dan­ger­ous” because he knew that what should be unlike­ly had not rung true in his expe­ri­ence. In oth­er words, the unlike­ly hap­pened once… so it will hap­pen twice. And it has. It was a pos­i­tive atti­tude that impos­si­ble things could be accom­plished with deter­mi­na­tion. But where to begin? He need­ed a mis­sion. And he found it in a mentor.

Volunteers under a tent
Get­ting Pre­pared — Sub­mit­ted by Kevin Harper

Food on the Move

Food and Produce being bagged by volunteers
Bag­ging Fruit — Sub­mit­ted by Kevin Harper

The seed that would become the non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Food on the Move would come from a for­mer US ambas­sador. He was a man who Tay­lor respect­ed, some­one who had made a dif­fer­ence through his own ser­vice to oth­ers and the Unit­ed States. Edward J. Perkins was a teacher at OU when he and Han­son became acquainted. 

An edu­cat­ed black man who had expe­ri­enced and over­come racism and seg­re­ga­tion in his own life, Edward J. Perkins not only rose to a suc­cess­ful career in diplo­ma­cy but played a piv­otal role in end­ing the pol­i­cy of dis­crim­i­na­tion and seg­re­ga­tion in South Africa as the US ambas­sador from 1986 to 89.

His courage to stand for what is right rather than what is expect­ed would have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on Han­son. But it would be Perkins’ will­ing­ness to get in the trench­es, as it were, and fight the good fight that would leave a last­ing impres­sion on Han­son. It was the mes­sage that pos­si­bil­i­ties are cre­at­ed by those who believe noth­ing is impos­si­ble. That mes­sage exem­pli­fied Perkins’ ser­vice to the Unit­ed States and became the inspi­ra­tion for Han­son to hon­or his life with an act of ser­vice all his own. “I want­ed to build bridges to con­nect peo­ple, not walls to sep­a­rate them,” Han­son said. 

This is what Perkins had done. And iron­i­cal­ly, it would be advice from Perkins that set the course for his cho­sen act of ser­vice. That same act now grows in the com­mon ground among Tul­sans. One sim­ple word, “food,” was the seed that Perkins and Han­son plant­ed that day. When Tay­lor asked him how he could hon­or his life, Perkins’ response became the vision that is now Food on the Move. The impli­ca­tion is that it all begins with food, the com­mon neces­si­ty that all humankind requires, as Perkins believes. And inspir­ing some­one else to help every­one with what they need­ed was how this man of ser­vice want­ed to be honored.

Sowing Seeds

And so it began, small of course, but with vig­or and a new and dif­fer­ent atti­tude. Unlike oth­er orga­ni­za­tions that throw mon­ey at the results cre­at­ed by prob­lems in soci­ety, this act of ser­vice was about using knowl­edge to cor­rect it at the root. It was the same atti­tude that had trans­formed South Africa from an apartheid soci­ety, and it would be the same one for this endeav­or, a trans­for­ma­tion­al one, Han­son explained. It had to be life-altering. 

It would be a new approach to pro­vid­ing food to those who need­ed it most. It was a ‘get in the trench­es approach and plant seeds while down there’ approach. It was 2014, and Han­son began his act of ser­vice by first meet­ing with peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty and pos­ing the ques­tion of how Tul­sa could become a stronger com­mu­ni­ty using food. Talk­ing with food banks, health depart­ments, civic lead­ers, and oth­er non-prof­its, he learned that there is a soci­etal mis­con­cep­tion and that hunger is not only among the home­less pop­u­la­tion. Nor can it be alle­vi­at­ed with just soup kitchens.

Hunger is a com­mu­ni­ty-wide prob­lem that affects work­ing fam­i­lies who are not typ­i­cal­ly viewed by oth­ers as “in need.” And what became most evi­dent was that mon­ey is not always the prob­lem as to why peo­ple do not have access to healthy food. It became clear that many peo­ple sim­ply didn’t have con­ve­nient access to gro­cery stores, healthy foods, and pro­duce. This was the invis­i­ble ene­my. “We devised an idea. 

We decid­ed to start by bring­ing the food to those areas where food was not read­i­ly available—in oth­er words, mov­ing the food to those areas known as food deserts. Food on the Move was cre­at­ed because of a need that most didn’t even rec­og­nize. And so, a new vision had to be and was born. The events of dis­trib­ut­ing food to these food deserts serve two pur­pos­es, accord­ing to Hanson. 

First, it pro­vides healthy food imme­di­ate­ly, such as fresh pro­duce and oth­er such nec­es­sary foods which are lack­ing in many homes, and pro­vides meals to those who have very lit­tle at all to eat. Sec­ond­ly, it is to learn from those who are in need. It is a mis­sion to under­stand what needs to hap­pen for these peo­ple to no longer require help. “It is to teach them to fish,” as the adage goes. Food is the begin­ning. The mid­dle is to learn from these peo­ple what they need to tran­si­tion from the side of the table need­ing food to the side that is pass­ing it out. And the end is to erad­i­cate food deserts.

Smiling volunteers behind a table of food
Vol­un­teers — Sub­mit­ted by Kevin Harper

Teach a Man to Grow

And in the mid­dle is where Han­son and Exec­u­tive Direc­tor for Food on the Move, Kevin Harp­er thrive. They real­ized ear­ly on that an end to food deserts is in the knowl­edge to change those from deserts to gar­dens. Ask­ing ques­tions, lis­ten­ing, and inno­va­tion became key to their mis­sion. And so, they began plant­i­ng seeds in the trench­es with new inno­v­a­tive ideas. One of the most excit­ing is its quest to teach oth­ers to grow their own food. 

Young girl looking into bag of fruit
Pro­vid­ing Food — Sub­mit­ted by Kevin Harper

Any­one who grows gar­dens begins to under­stand the pow­er of nature and the boun­ty one seed can pro­vide. It’s excit­ing to wit­ness the trans­for­ma­tion from seed to crop, to watch them devel­op into an edi­ble mir­a­cle. The ini­tial results have been incred­i­ble. Through an edu­ca­tion pro­gram begun last year, chil­dren are wit­ness­ing that mir­a­cle and learn­ing that the pow­er to pro­duce healthy and inex­pen­sive food is not only pos­si­ble but fun. 

“When we began, we thought that growth would be and could be a key part of the trans­for­ma­tion that is need­ed,” Han­son said. How­ev­er, he admit­ted how that was going to play out wasn’t quite clear. It was, after all, a learn­ing expe­ri­ence for Han­son, Harp­er, and oth­ers involved. Han­son fur­ther explained that in soci­ety today, most have lost touch with the art of growing. 

It is easy for those who do not live with­in food deserts to drop by the gro­cery store and pick up sal­ad ingre­di­ents. So, in essence, a skill set is lost to the con­ve­nience of eas­i­ly obtain­able pro­duce for many. Redis­cov­er­ing our lost con­nec­tion to grow­ing our own food will cer­tain­ly play a large role in erad­i­cat­ing food deserts, Han­son said. 

This is cer­tain­ly a goal with­in the orga­ni­za­tion to bring back that lost con­nec­tion on an indi­vid­ual lev­el. But real­is­ti­cal­ly, it is only a part of what needs to hap­pen. This real­iza­tion has also brought about a long-term plan of teach­ing it on a gen­er­a­tional lev­el so large amounts of food can be grown by a new gen­er­a­tion of grow­ers through­out the year. 

This can be done now with the help of advance­ments in tech­nol­o­gy for indoor grow­ing urban farms. They began with a pilot pro­gram at Mon­roe Demon­stra­tion Acad­e­my. And it yield­ed, with­out max­i­miza­tion, over 400 pounds of pro­duce last year alone. Fresh food is all grown by the stu­dents! This is an invest­ment that Food on the Move believes can bring about its long-term goal of trans­for­ma­tion. The ini­tial grow oper­a­tion for the inside oper­a­tion cost was $30,000, with addi­tion­al out­side grow beds installed adding anoth­er $10,000. The mon­ey was donat­ed by sev­er­al sup­port­ers of the organization.

Food on the Move’s ini­tial results are a clear sign they are grow­ing in the right direc­tion. In addi­tion to help­ing in food desert areas, teach­ing a gen­er­a­tion to grow local food on this scale opens the door to future com­merce when these young grow­ers learn that this is a trans­fer­able skill to adult­hood. Those who grow up in food deserts and learn the val­ue of grow­ing can, and hope­ful­ly, will uti­lize these new­found skills to mar­ket what they grow in the future in and out of food deserts. 

They are cur­rent­ly only work­ing with Tul­sa Pub­lic Schools to cre­ate the frame­work for a cur­ricu­lum. But even­tu­al­ly hope it will be adopt­ed statewide to cre­ate a learn­ing envi­ron­ment that teach­es new gen­er­a­tions the pow­er of grow­ing their own food and cre­at­ing com­merce, all the while erad­i­cat­ing food deserts.

Volunteering for Change

Food on the Move is a vol­un­teer-dri­ven orga­ni­za­tion where locals in the com­mu­ni­ty vol­un­teer their time to help those in need of food. What is so reward­ing for Han­son, Harp­er, and oth­ers who run the orga­ni­za­tion is how the mes­sage has spread into the lives of those vol­un­teer­ing. Even those who start­ed out with sim­ple tasks such as hand­ing out fliers have become heav­i­ly involved in oth­er aspects of the mission. 

And that is cer­tain­ly some­thing that fun­nels down from the lead­er­ship. In all types of weath­er, Han­son and Harp­er will be right along­side vol­un­teers dis­trib­ut­ing food, pass­ing out fly­ers, and gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion as to how they can fur­ther erad­i­cate food deserts and help peo­ple become more suc­cess­ful in their lives. 

A photographer poses for a picture with volunteers
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er — Sub­mit­ted by Kevin Harper

It’s an impres­sive sight to see, a seem­ing­ly end­less line of peo­ple dri­ving up and being greet­ed by their neigh­bors as they are giv­en box­es of fresh food. It’s easy to see why vol­un­teerism keeps ris­ing once you wit­ness the true spir­it of giv­ing por­trayed through a Food on the Move event.

Most know of Tay­lor Han­son through the fame and suc­cess of he and his broth­ers, Isaac and Zac’s band Han­son, which they formed in the ear­ly 1990s. The trio has undoubt­ed­ly racked up a fol­low­ing and con­tin­ues cre­at­ing music for loy­al and new fans alike. And though Tay­lor Han­son has earned tremen­dous com­mer­cial suc­cess over his career, he has trans­formed his desire to grow some­thing equal­ly as uni­ver­sal as the music he cre­ates. It’s some­thing every­one is des­tined to become a fan of a mis­sion to make sure no one in Tul­sa goes hungry.

Unique­la­homa

C.L. Harmon

C.L. Harmon

C.L. is an award-winning journalist who spent many years in the newspaper and freelance fields. In addition to holding reporting and editing positions throughout his career, he also owned and operated a newspaper for several years. He was born, raised, and continues to reside in Oklahoma.

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The small kindness you do today may be the only reason someone does a great kindness in the future. Kindness has a memory and never forgets it owes itself to someone. And the someone it chooses may just be the right person to perform a kindness that changes the world. - C.L. Harmon

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