Houstonians may be familiar with Urban Harvest through its popular farmers market at Eastside, where summer tomatoes, springtime peaches and leafy greens typically fill the recycled totes of locavores. But since taking over as executive director three weeks ago, Sandra Wicoff sees the organization as a blooming, volunteer-powered nonprofit ripe with juicy possibility.
"The scope of the organization is much bigger that its public face," Wicoff explains. "When you take a health care crisis — like the obesity epidemic and the reality of its impact on people — and the financial integrity of the city and the country and you put that together, people are encouraged to find a local, sustainable, affordable model that gives them good nutritious food. It's a great time for Urban Harvest to connect all these dots and fuel synergies among community partners to make this happen."
It's this aspect of social service that lured Wicoff away from her seven-year tenure as the executive director of The River Performing and Visual Arts Center, an organization offering arts education programs for children with disabilities that merged with Theatre Under the Stars in 2010. The position will be eliminated and her responsibilities will assumed by other TUTS staff members.
"There are a lot of people who are underserved, who don't have access to nutritious food — and they are paying a huge price in health and wellbeing."
Wicoff, who is originally from Long Island, N.Y., moved to Houston when she was 22 to study law at the University of Houston. Her appointment fills a void since her former counterpart, Mark Bowen, left last year June to join Nature's Way Resources.
"I've been in some way involved with social programs my whole life," Wicoff says. "This is just coming at an issue from a different angle. There are a lot of people who are underserved, who don't have access to nutritious food — and they are paying a huge price in health and wellbeing."
She sees Urban Harvest as addressing these issues from the ground up through education initiatives, business classes and community garden support programs that bring people together in a healthy way. Part of such ventures also include outreach to gardeners and farmers working around a 180-mile radius from the city. Through these programs, Urban Harvest advocates for sustainable farming practices while teaching profitable farming models that in turn increase the availability of locally grown, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
"It's how to do everything to get goods from the farm to the market," she continues.
One-time and ongoing classes have grown to include more advance subjects, including bee keeping, permaculture design and renewable energy. The collective resources are designed to be a tool kit for those who want to grow their own food or for those who want to become successful entrepreneurs. With evolving laws and regulations, staying on top of public policy is critical when assisting its 150 affiliate gardens and numerous vendors.
Although Urban Harvest's budget has doubled in the past five years, Wicoff plans to increase its current $1-million financial balance sheet.
"We get many requests daily about projects that make us say, yes, that's our mission," she explains. "There are people out there that really want — and deserve — our assistance. We'll find a way to make sure they get it."