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Local First Arizona receives historic $1M grant from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation

Photo of Local First Arizona
Heart & Soil People’s Garden, 1730 S. 2nd St. in Phoenix, was founded by Garden Director Chanika Forté in 2022 on land originally donated to Local First by longtime Business Coalition members Pat and Howard Fleischmann of Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair. (Submitted Photos/DigitalFreePress)
Local First Arizona to expand community gardens, entrepreneur development
By Rebekah Sanders | Local First Arizona

In the largest private donation in Local First Arizona’s 21-year history, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation has awarded the nonprofit more than $1 million to expand community gardens and entrepreneur development.

The funds will allow Local First Arizona to double the size of the Heart & Soil People’s Garden and expand programming for the surrounding central Phoenix community. The grant will also support Local First’s business accelerators Fuerza Local, Nivel Ejecutivo and We Rise, all of which are designed to supercharge Spanish-speaking and Black entrepreneurs’ success.

“The extraordinary generosity of The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation will enable Local First Arizona to positively impact so many business owners and families in our community,” said Local First Arizona Founder & CEO Kimber Lanning.

“These programs are truly envisioned and guided by the communities they serve to build healthy eating, economic well-being and strong neighborhoods from the ground up. Local First Arizona will continue unleashing our state’s potential with transformative gifts like this one.”

Heart & Soil People’s Garden, 1730 S. 2nd St. in Phoenix, was founded by Garden Director Chanika Forté in 2022 on land originally donated to Local First by longtime Business Coalition members Pat and Howard Fleischmann of Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair.

Ms. Forté’s vision for a nurturing space for women growers and entrepreneurs transformed a once vacant lot in a food desert, an area defined by a lack of affordable and accessible healthy food options, into a lush urban farm that fosters a thriving, eco-conscious community.

Local First Arizona to expand community gardens, entrepreneur development

A portion of the Parsons’ donation will finance the purchase of an adjacent property and construction of a classroom and bathroom, as well as help support operating costs like hiring additional garden staff.

“The expansion of the Heart & Soil People’s Garden is a testament to the passion and dedication our growers have poured into growing nutritious food for their families and connecting with their community,” Ms. Forté said. “The garden is more than a green corner lot in central Phoenix. It’s the epicenter of a movement to prioritize our health, our relationships, and our environment.”

Designated a People’s Garden by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2023, the women-led urban farm grows over 14,000 pounds of fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables each year. Ms. Forté is a seventh-generation farmer and was one of only two Black beekeepers in Arizona until she began teaching a new generation of female hive caretakers, dubbed the BaeHive.

Experts warn farmland is disappearing in Maricopa County faster than anywhere else in the country, threatening the future of our local food supply. Urban farmers like Ms. Forté are training others to strengthen their food independence by nurturing healthy gardens and honey right in their own neighborhoods.

On a recent visit, Renee Parsons called the Heart & Soil People’s Garden “an oasis of healing and health.” She added, “It was a privilege to meet and hear the stories of six women who currently grow onsite at the garden, each of whom had a unique perspective on how this small area of land has made such a big impact on the community at large. The garden is more than a place where food is grown, it is a hub for education, empowerment, safety, health and belonging.”

In addition to the garden expansion, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation’s multi-year grant will support Local First’s business accelerator programs.

The Fuerza Local Business Accelerator is a six-month training program for Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs who want to level up their businesses. Nivel Ejecutivo is an advanced-level accelerator for Spanish-speaking owners and managers. We Rise Business Accelerator is a six-month training program for Black entrepreneurs.

Each course has been created with experts from these communities to ensure culturally relevant and accurate curricula. Classes cover a wide range of topics such as business model development and planning, financial literacy, business licensing, customer service and networking.

“We believe in supporting populations that often get overlooked by mainstream philanthropy,” said Bob Parsons, co-founder of The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation. “Investing in the future of entrepreneurs who have less access to certain opportunities is the right thing to do.”

The Fuerza Local Business Accelerator and Nivel Ejecutivo have graduated more than 1,100 entrepreneurs since 2013, while nearly 100 have graduated from We Rise since 2020.

The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation donation will go toward recruitment, instructors, mentors and the $1,000 matching checks that graduates receive when they save $1,000 during the program.

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