How I Lead: Jessica Parks, Kirksville, MO City Councillor
by Ash Bruxvoort, Plate to Politics Coordinator
Jessica Parks’ farming journey began in 2008 when her in-laws bought four tomato plants as a housewarming gift for her.
“Once I had our first garden tomato I was hooked. It was so much better than anything I’d had from the store,” she said. “After a couple of years we had about 100 different types of fruits and vegetables we were growing on a quarter of an acre in Kansas City.”
Jessica grew up in an apartment in southern California. Gardening wasn’t part of her life and she admits that she didn’t quite know what she was doing when she started gardening with her husband, which meant the quarter of an acre didn’t have the structure of your average farm. Through research, Jessica and her husband realized their methods were most aligned with permaculture. By the third year, they were producing enough to sell the excess to their neighbors.
“That was the first time I learned about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and what corporate ag is doing with our family farms. How they’re killing our earth,” she said. “It inspired me to think about how we interact with our food in new ways.”
Exploring Farming Methods through Travel
Jessica and her husband left Kansas City when their son was five months old to go backpacking and work on sustainable farms through Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farmers (WWOOF). They visited Peru and did a cross-country road trip from Florida to Washington. They hoped to find land to farm in Oregon but couldn’t find an affordable place to land when they got a call from friends near Kirksville, Missouri, letting them know that there was a farmer selling land.
Ultimately the land purchase they thought they were moving back to Missouri for fell through. They began searching for land outside of the city for a couple of years, they found a home with two acres in the city limits of Kirksville. Their growing operation is mostly focused on fruit production and herbs because not a lot of farms in the area grow fruit. They are also putting in a greenhouse so that they can do winter produce. Jessica says she likes the feeling of connection that comes from living in town, and she wanted to foster more connections in the community through food.
“Kirksville is in Adair County, which is the fifth poorest county in Missouri. There are a lot of people who struggle to get food yet we are surrounded by rich soil,” she says. “According to our regional economic development center, there are only 11 acres in this county dedicated to fruit and vegetable production. Even if there were 100 acres that would be 2/10 of one percent of farmland that grows food that we eat.”
Running a Donation Based Cafe
Jessica came up with an idea to bridge the gap, which was a donation based cafe. When she moved to Kirksville she met with a small business counselor who told her she would be better off opening a high-end local foods cafe and starting a nonprofit restaurant later. She crunched the numbers and realized that between the cost of food and providing living wages for her workers, she was going to have to charge so much that she would alienate half the population of Kirksville. She didn’t want to compromise on the food the restaurant served, so she decided to set the idea aside.
“Then I found this network called One World Everybody Eats (OWEE). There are over sixty pay-what-you-can cafes in the United States. Every cafe is an independent nonprofit,” she said. She opened Take Root Cafe and became the Executive Director. The vision for Take Root Cafe is to create a more compassionate, thriving and economically strong community through the medium of sustainable and local food. Their mission is to alleviate hunger and promote health by offering nourishing, high quality, local food on a pay-what-you-can basis.
There are seven principles that every cafe in OWEE follows. Some cafes will choose local and organic when it’s convenient but not all of the time. Most of the cafes around the country are only open for lunch or once a week. Take Root Cafe is open five days a week from 11-8 pm and sources from 12 area farms.
Running for City Council as Food Justice Activist
In addition to her work farming and running Take Root Cafe, Jessica has been an advocate for community health since moving to Kirksville. She says she loves falling down “research holes” and found herself in one after she’d found out that the city water supply had been out of EPA compliance since April 2017. During that night’s “research hole” she was reading city council minutes when her friend called her.
“Have you ever thought about running for city council?” she asked. The friend was considering running herself but it didn’t make sense for her at that time. “I was sitting there reading the council minutes at 9:00 pm and I thought, maybe I should run.”
It was the day before filing closed when she decided to run. She’d been involved in trying to get their farmers market to accept food stamps. She’d presented on local food systems locally. She’d led plant walks and educational events. She’d been outspoken about landlords and real estate developers who had ignored the social issues. She was already a member of the Main Street Kirksville economic development board and had looked at other small towns to see why some thrive and others die. One of the commonalities is having a strong identity and involving people in the process of creating that.
“I think when you take care of the people, including food and housing, that’s when you have a thriving community. It starts with investing in people. Bringing in big box stores isn’t a sustainable way of approaching economic development,” she said. “It’s no secret that I’m pretty progressive. I’m in a conservative town. It almost always goes red every election regardless of the college. I wasn’t sure what people would think.”
Already active in her community, Jessica’s campaign goal was to talk to as many people as possible. She also wanted to learn more about city government and met with all of the city departments while campaigning. At 32 years old she was far younger than the existing council members. She was able to run alongside her friend Zac, who was 35.
“There were more young candidates than there have been. It really changed the dynamics of campaigning. I was engaging with people through social media,” she said. “I held the first campaign event that was a meet and greet discussion to talk about issues. I didn’t want to push my own agenda but I really wanted to hear from people what they were passionate about.”
Both Jessica and Zac won at-large city council seats by more than 200 votes. Kirksville is back in compliance with the EPA, and Jessica says she is excited to be in a position that really serves the people in her community and where she can continue the vision to work toward creating a more compassionate, thriving, and economically strong community through sustainable and local food.