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Opal's Farm Launches To Bring Produce To Fort Worth's Food Deserts

Christopher Connelly
Opal Lee, right, with farm manager Gregory Joel, center, and Charlie Blaylock of Shine Farms. Lee's granddaughter Dione Sims, not pictured, also founded the farm.

An urban farm is growing on the banks of the Trinity River in Fort Worth. Opal’s Farm is named for 92-year-old Opal Lee, a retired educator and longtime community advocate who has for years nurtured the vision of a farm to feed Fort Worth’s food deserts.

Today, at a ribbon cutting with community leaders and local officials, Lee celebrated that vision coming into reality.

“This is stupendous,” pronounced the the former teacher and school counselor.

Right now, Opal’s Farm is a couple acres of freshly turned dirt next to the Trinity River, ready for planting beds to be built and seeds to be sown.

Across the river, downtown skyscrapers loom, but that abundance seems to stop at the water. This United Riverside neighborhood is one of many Tarrant County communities designated as food deserts where fresh, unprocessed foods are hard to come by.

One goal of the project is to provide fresh produce to an area where there isn’t a close-by source of healthy, unprocessed foods.

“Tarrant County alone has over 40 food deserts,” says Gregory Joel, who’ll manage the farm. “A lot of times the only choice people have is what you can get off the convenience store shelf or at the dollar store.”

That contributes to higher rates of chronic problems like obesity and diabetes in these food desserts, which are most often lower-income communities of color.

The other goal: to create jobs, especially for people whose criminal record is a barrier to employment.

“There are still people who can’t find jobs, and so this farming project is to put them to work farming, and pay them a living wage,” Lee says.

Credit Paul Cline for KERA News
Opal Lee cuts the ribbon to mark the beginning of Opal's Farm.

Lee is a long-time advocate for her community and for the causes she believes in. She’s long led Fort Worth’s annual Juneteenth celebration, which marks the day enslaved people in Texas learned of slavery’s abolition.

Two years ago, at age 90, she made a symbolic walk to Washington, DC to make the case that Juneteenth should be a federal holiday, though it wasn’t ultimately successful. That is hardly the first setback she’s faced. When she was 12, a racist mob burned down her family home to drive them out of a mostly white neighborhood.

Lee has been a long-time advocate for affordable housing and civil rights. After retiring as a school counselor, she helped build and lead a local food bank.

Now at 92, Lee appears as enthusiastic as ever about her vision of a stronger, more vibrant community. And, after five years of working to make it happen, Opal’s Farm will start growing organic produce to feed the people.

“We’re going to have lettuce and tomatoes and carrots and peas and cabbage and okra and …celery. Every kind of vegetable you can name,” Lee says, beaming.

Some of the produce will be sold at a farmer’s market and to local chefs. The rest will be given away.

Lee says the community support made the farm a reality. The Tarrant County Regional Water District donated the land along the Trinity, and local businesses and community members have donated supplies and time.

Opal’s Farm was given five acres, with more land on the table if needed. Right now, Joel says, the plan is to start farming two acres and then grow the operation. Planting should start in the next few weeks.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.