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Sophia Buggs: Planting food knowledge — and produce — in the Valley

Sophia Buggs, owner of Lady Buggs Farm and a Mahoning Valley Food Access coordinator, is working to aid food access and education in the Valley.  She was nominated for the League of Women Voters of Greater Youngstown’s Women’s Hall of Fame for her efforts to revitalize the community. 

YOUNGSTOWN — Sophia Buggs, owner of Lady Buggs Farm and a Mahoning Valley Food Access coordinator, is working to aid food access and education in the Valley from the farm to the table. 

Buggs, also known as Mama Sophia, was recently nominated for the League of Women Voters of Greater Youngstown’s Women’s Hall of Fame for her efforts to revitalize the community. 

“I'm just a small woman farmer that really has a farm the size of a garden, [who’s] trying to make a big splash in the world,” she said. “To be recognized — and to be recognized with the women that are on the list, and I know most if not all of them — I’m very honored.” 

Additionally, Buggs was recognized as a community leader during the Habitat for Humanity Women Build Week from March 8 to 15. 

Buggs, who was born in Youngstown, moved to Florida at age 10. Although she’d travel back to the Mahoning Valley to visit family, she eventually settled in Florida and taught public speaking for film and recording arts at Full Sail University and was a breastfeeding peer counselor for the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program. 

“I think it was 2010 … I lost my grandmother and we brought her home to Youngstown to bury her. And that was the time that I knew that being at [my grandmother’s] house, I just knew I was coming back [to Youngstown]. It just so happened [that when] I went back to Florida, I was laid off both of my jobs,” Buggs said. 

“I took it as an opportunity to start all over,” Buggs added. “I came back home to the whole house and a whole other Youngstown.” 

While trying to adapt to her new normal, Buggs decided to bake her grandmother's homemade zucchini bread from scratch — which meant growing zucchini. 

The once flourishing garden Buggs remembered from her childhood was marred by gravel and pulled-up bushes. 

“So I decided to grow zucchini in some kiddie pools in the backyard,” she said. “ It was a great plant to learn. Then I decided to try my hands with some herbs. But by then, it was kind of catching on and people were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that lady is growing in kiddie pools in the backyard of the abandoned houses.”

“But I didn't know it was a thing. I didn't know urban agriculture as that name. I was just trying to save my own self and my own life, really. I didn't know that it was food justice, activism, social justice,” she added. “I didn't know that there was a thing called food insecurity, food sovereignty. I didn't know any of that. But doing the work, you fall into it, you know?”

Eventually, Buggs wanted to grow beyond her fence, so she went to Mahoning County Land Bank and developed plans to grow on nine lots backing up against her house — now known as Lady Buggs Farm. 

Lady Buggs Farm is a 1.3 acre urban farm on the South Side of Youngstown. Buggs said what produce she grows and where it’s available varies each season. This year, Lady Buggs Farm is growing herbs and edible flowers. 

In 2012, Buggs also entered an apprenticeship through Goodness Grows, which led to her spearheading gardening programs at Turning Point Residential. 

“Farming is small steps. You’ve got to clean up the space, first of all. You’ve got to better understand the ecosystem that you live in. You need to assess the neighborhood. You got to look at where the sun falls,” Buggs said. 

Working with YNDC, taking the next steps

Buggs told Mahoning Matters that when Goodness Grows couldn’t handle the capacity of what she needed through a full growing season, she began working with Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation at the start of its Iron Roots Urban Farm project in conjunction with Goodness Grows. Buggs received two Lots of Green grants from YNDC and a 2021 Youngstown Business Incubator small-business grant for $5,000 to aid in the development of Lady Buggs Farm. 

Through that relationship with YNDC, Buggs was encouraged to join AmeriCorps VISTA in 2015. 

“I was like, ‘You know what, according to these studies, farmers don't make money. So if I'm going to farm, I need to know how to eat on a budget. I’ve got a double house, I’ve got this land and I have my daughter,’” Buggs said. “So I gave my full dedication to AmeriCorps VISTA service with YNDC.” 

After serving her term, Buggs began teaching cooking classes for resource moms through Mercy Health-Youngstown and then selling produce, from her farm and other local farmers, at a variety of farmers markets. 

Buggs later collaborated on the establishment of the Healing Garden at Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Youngstown, taught a garden experience class called The Healing Garden and helped establish their children's garden and summer program. 

“By then, Sarah Lowry [director of Healthy Community Partnership] found me, because she started being a participant in the garden. She was just like, ‘I need you at the table,’” Buggs said. 

Buggs started at Healthy Community Partnership with a resident engagement position and participated as a board member with one of HCP’s action teams, healthy food retail. Now, she has served HCP as Mahoning Valley Food Access coordinator since 2018. 

Buggs also sits on the board of Fellows Riverside Gardens and serves as a spiritualist through Mama Sophia’s Wisdom, specializing in oracle readings and plant wisdom. 

“I would be crazy to not highlight the spiritual gifts that I also possess, you know, so this is why I say I'm a medicine woman. Plant medicine and wildcrafting are things that I absolutely, consistently do every day, because I have to be one with nature to be as prolific as I am. I'm so busy that the thing that's keeping me together is land.

“I thought I was supposed to be selling produce, but I’m supposed to be serving people by way of the land,” she said. 

Planting education, sprouting initiatives 

Buggs is working to serve the food community through community education, food access and changing the dialogue. 

Buggs said she’s helping put together a team to make sure Black-led organizations get the percentage that is needed from the nonprofits that say that they are speaking out against racism. 

“All of the social determinants of health that we see on Black bodies in the Valley is real. To be a Black woman leading such a call, the challenge is I'm trying to save myself and the world at the same time. And you get caught into the construct of service or servant,” she said.

According to Buggs, although Youngstown is described as a "food desert," many people in the food community have deemed food desert an inappropriate word to define “what's really happening with our broken food system.” 

Instead, the phrase they use is “food sovereignty.”

“The phrase [food desert] was created to draw in nonprofit funding income. But we know, too, that it really is a word that says blight, Black, poor, disadvantage. So we really need to just say those things as opposed to putting a nice jingle with what we feel is comfortable, because it takes away the focus from who's done it as opposed to the people that it's happening to,” she added. 

Buggs said food access, as it relates to urban agriculture, “is the future.” She’s working to expand the idea of “growing where you are,” as well as community store gardens and using government food vouchers, like WIC, SNAP and EBT, at urban farms and farmers markets to pay for produce — a system she’d seen work effectively at Idora Neighborhood Farmers Market. 

“A farmers market would probably be the place where you could aggregate it all. Where there's a market and you've got vendors, and there's an EBT machine there and someone to take the vouchers, as opposed to each farm stand,” she said. “[At Idora] we were able to manage that and we were able to give each farmer, at the end of the day, the return money.” 

Currently, Buggs is working with community stores Common Goods Studios, Cosmic Kitchen, Gene’s Market, Evolve Market and Augusta Market to help aid in food access by getting fresh produce to the stores, supporting the infrastructures and aiding if they’re challenged with health department coding. 

“This is a slow movement, and if we do it too quickly, we [are going to] miss it. That's what's difficult when you are a business. It's not like a T-shirt. It takes time, and since it’s involving land and other things that are growing, you have to be slow and intentional and meaningful. That's the medicine in it,” she said. “That's what food does — food brings everybody together.” 

Buggs is also working on a list of local gardens and gardeners who are going to be active this year, in an effort to connect the two in collaboration with Perfectly Imperfect Produce, a female-owned food vendor. 

“[We’re] looking for farmers, connecting them to land, making sure gardeners have a place to garden, and connecting them to gardens and making sure a lot of our community stores are getting fresh produce,” she said.

“I think we're at the cusp of something great happening. I see newness everywhere now — new buildings being refurbished, green spaces becoming available, new opportunities. I see it ... it's a beautiful thing.”

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