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Reaping the rewards: Mission Waco’s Urban REAP Program

Earthworms, composting, aquaponics, and gardening. Urban REAP provides an educational center for children and adults alike to learn more about the environment.

Urban REAP is a renewable energy and agriculture project within Mission Waco. Founded in 2016 with the Jubilee Food Market, Urban REAP has grown to provide educational tours and videos for community members all over Texas.

Lili Zertuche, program coordinator at Urban REAP, said while her day-to-day responsibilities fluctuate, she enjoys doing outreach work and educating the public on creation care and educational justice.

“We don’t have a huge staff, so we all do a little bit of everything daily to keep the program running smoothly,” Zertuche said. “Personally, I love working here because of the environmental justice aspect. This is the idea that everyone regardless of class, race, age or where you live, we all deserve a clean, healthy environment that helps us thrive.”

In Texas, there is a 30-year difference between the highest and lowest life expectancies, according to UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“Life expectancy was strongly associated with poverty: Those living in ZIP codes with less than 5 percent poverty lived an average of 82.4 years, whereas those living in ZIP codes with more than 20 percent poverty lived an average of 76.4 years,” the UT report says.

Zertuche explained that there are food deserts, a term describing an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food, and life expectancy differences in Waco that largely impact the community and neighborhoods. Urban REAP works with the Jubilee Food Market to help address the local food deserts.

“These disparities and issues of environmental justice are local and global in a sense,” Zertuche said. “People everywhere want clean water, good food and clean air, so Urban REAP’s mission is something that anyone can relate to.”

Urban REAP has four initiatives: compost, education, aquaponics, and the garden center. Community members can attend monthly events, such as composting certification courses and garden planting workshops. Additionally, Urban REAP hosts school field trips, teaching students the importance of food security and environmental justice.

Zertuche said her favorite part is seeing the community members who come in learn and grow in their knowledge of the environment.

“I love gardening and being outside, and I’m able to interact with kids, teenagers and adults to get them excited about being outside,” Zertuche said. “Showing them worms and dirt and they’re grossed out at first but then love it and understand it is such a cool part of my job.”

Zaeli Crocker, education and community programming intern, said she loves impacting the community in a positive way and connecting with Waco directly.

“I do children’s programming with the Mission Waco youth and the Brookline Avenue after school elementary kids,” Crocker said. “They come over on Monday afternoons and we teach them a lesson about some environmentally related topic. It’s useful for them and fun for me.”

Community members can visit Urban REAP to learn more or volunteer in the gardens and aquaponics. Additionally, those looking to become more food sustainable can participate in their composting bucket programs.

“We can get you trained on different things so that you can do what you want to do in Urban REAP,” Zertuche said. “I’ve noticed students enjoy taking an hour of their week to come volunteer and work with the plants and use it as a therapeutic time away from campus.

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