Matthew Cronin grew up in Omaha and now spends his daily life inspiring neighbors of all ages to be more connected to earth’s natural resources and how food is grown. The people he touches are from all backgrounds and walks of life. What connects them all is – the soil.
“It’s like a house,” Cronin said he tells students of all ages. “If the condition of the foundation of the house is not good, the house will not last. If the condition of our soil is in bad shape, the entire society can collapse.”
Cronin attended Omaha Central High School and then headed to the University of Minnesota on scholarships to pursue his Bachelor of Science in Urban Studies and minors in Anthropology, Sustainability and Social Justice. He was particularly interested in the public power system and the potential of renewables as well as more local ownership in the future of energy development.
Cronin has a long history in the local food and soil health movement. After college, when he returned to Omaha, a friend asked him to help start Big Muddy Urban Farm in the Gifford Park Community, “My hands were soft, and my back was soft. What better time to learn about the soil?”
Cronin’s experiences also include working with City Sprouts – a workforce development program that uses gardening to help refocus at-risk youth. He later helped with the United Methodist Ministries Big Garden project for several years as well. Cronin teaches a Biomass Course at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs and he helps manage their program and assists in their construction program. He also works at Nebraska Wildlife Rehab and the Montessori Children’s Room in Omaha.
Today, he and his wife Eliza, live in a house they purchased in Gifford Park, just in front of the community garden where he really dug into his initial experiences with urban farming, “We live in the age of the ‘cult of the expert.’ People are often worried about being so perfect at something, they don’t even try. Gardening is like anything else – you learn by doing it. It’s about exposing kids to the idea that food does not come from a grocery store and water doesn’t come from a faucet.”
Cronin said that’s how the Big Muddy Urban Farm project began – trial and error. The premise for starting it was to meet a need, he said, “We were in a food desert in Omaha with not a lot of grocery stores in walking distance and lead contamination in the soil. So, we started by scrounging together some land below contaminated levels and began growing and cultivating our own food for a community CSA, farmers markets, and restaurant sales. The Gifford Park Neighborhood was very supportive, and many people gave us one-dollar leases and access to water.”
“The Gifford Park Community Garden includes three-foot by three-foot garden beds for the kids to practice in. They are learning how long something takes to grow. They are responsible for their space until harvest. Then, at that time, a cook visits to make a meal with some of the harvest and the kids contribute some of their garden crops to that meal. A lot of the food that is grown is for their family. It is very rewarding to see five, six and seven-year-olds wanting to provide for their family,” he explained.
Long-term, Cronin wants to design prefabricated, resilient earthen housing that is affordable to everyone, “The Oto people who lived here and the first settlers coming across did not survive in Nebraska in log cabins. They survived digging into the earth and using the earth as protection. There are plenty of earthen housing examples today and we need more resilient housing for the 21st century. Every year Harvard puts out a report stating our housing stock in this country is not enough to meet the needs of our aging communities. I want to make earthen houses cheaply and expand their accessibility. Housing stock and accessibility to housing is one of the most influential things that shapes the long-term health of families.”
“I grew up poor and it is not cheap being poor,” Cronin went on. “I think what is important to remember is for a lot of cases it is historical legacies of physical segregation and separation of communities that sets the course for access to quality schools, housing and food. Churches and non-profits are not going to fill the void. You have people working two or three jobs, making $20,000 to $15,000 a year. The visceral contempt for the poor relying on snap benefits to survive misses the bigger picture of the value good nutrition has in helping all children and families in need. People have value that is a value more than their total income or assets. It’s important to keep an open mind and open heart.”