Tyrean “Heru” Lewis plants seeds for change in north St. Louis

What started as a simple trip to the grocery store has morphed into a calling for Tyrean “Heru” Lewis.

Heru wanted to buy some fresh produce, but he was appalled at the selection and quality of the fruits and vegetables in his north St. Louis neighborhood. Heru traveled to the same grocery chain’s stores in more affluent areas of St. Louis, where he was wowed by the vast selection of beautiful, enticing produce.

Tyrean “Heru” Lewis, motivated by the lack of fresh, healthy produce in his neighborhood, founded Heru Urban Farming in St. Louis.
Photos—Heru Urban Farming

“I told myself, ‘This ain’t right. I need to do something about this,’ ” says Heru (pronounced HAY-roo). A former educator, Heru was also acutely aware of the lack of fresh food options in his community and in other food deserts, defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a low-income census tract more than one mile from a supermarket in an urban or suburban area.

Folks living in food deserts have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. As he was thinking about all this, Heru learned he could lease vacant lots for five dollars for five years, as long as he was growing food on the land. He started small, growing zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes in two raised beds, and pepper plants in buckets across the street from his house. Soon community members started stopping by, asking him questions.

“I wasn’t really thinking about a business,” he recalls. “I just wanted to grow some food for my family. And then the community started talking to me.”

That was the beginning of Heru Urban Farming. As founder and CEO, Heru now grows more than twenty types of produce and herbs—everything from bok choy to zucchini—on four acres in three separate locations in north St. Louis County. He sells his produce at farmers’ markets and primarily through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.

For every five CSA subscribers, he donates one subscription to a family in need. In 2021, he donated fresh produce to twenty families, a number that’s grown every year since he started in 2017.

Watermelons are his cash crop. He raises six varieties, and in summer, his Instagram account bursts with photos of the whoppers he’s grown. The record for the largest, a Jubilee variety, was forty-four pounds. He’s had help along the way, including a $50,000 capital infusion though the University of Missouri-St. Louis Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Accelerator, a program to assist underrepresented entrepreneurs. Through his participation in the inaugural cohort, Heru hired a full-time employee, purchased equipment, and built a protective cover called a caterpillar tunnel to extend his growing season.

Heru Urban Farming is cultivating more than great-tasting fruits and veggies. Heru offers cooking classes, hands-on training for growers, health education, herbal remedies, and as he puts it, “the rebirth of togetherness within the community.” It’s a leadership role he relishes. In fact, the name ‘Heru’ was given to him in an African naming ceremony, symbolizing leadership. Heru says it means “King Liberator.”

“I want to liberate the people through sustainable, healthy food,” Heru says. “There’s a dollar store and a gas station on every corner in my neighborhood, but nowhere you can consistently get healthy food. Fresh food isn’t going to change everything, but it plays a part in your body’s development, how you pay attention in school, and your mindset. I’m just playing my part to change the narrative.”

Learn more at HeruUrbanFarming.com

Heru encourages youngsters involved with The Fit and Food Connection, a St. Louis-based nonprofit, to try a new vegetable.