Alsomitra macrocarpa is a tropical climbing gourd native to Southeast Asia. Its seeds are the ultimate gliders, drying up and circling the forest floor on “wings” that can grow up to 5 inches long. They drift on wind currents, seeking to propagate the species (also known to us as the “Javan cucumber”).
And so it is with Montgomery’s EatSouth, which
is losing has lost executive director Edwin Marty for the hipster-rich soils of Austin. He’s off to work for the City of Austin, which is ironic because a lot of people have been curious for years about EatSouth’s relationship to the municipal government of Montgomery. Like the javan cucumber seed, he is floating away on the wind to spread the brand of Earth-friendly sustainability and civic-corporate well-being.
Marty was only at EatSouth for a handful of years, but even before his arrival in 2011, a lot of observers were curious about the Hampstead Institute, of which EatSouth is ostensibly some sort of non-profit subsidiary side-project. The Hampstead Institute is a non-profit too, but seems to neither be an “institute,” nor much else that is readily identifiable.
We do know that the name of said “institute” comes from a housing development called Hampstead, which is a sort of master-planned community to the southeast of Montgomery. If you haven’t been out there, think Seaside in a cow pasture. It’s less Truman Show than wannabe-Aspen, but it also has a farm. And a windmill. And a lake. And all the other trappings of rural living without the inconvenience of actually having to labor on their three acre plot or put up with the visual clutter of people living in mobile homes. It’s just like rural living except there’s a Tipping Point instead of a Dollar Tree.
And that’s all fine and good. Rich people have every right to buy cow pastures and build Fantasy Land in them. We like wine bars too. You want to circle the SUVs around a fake 20-acre lake? Go nuts. Fill your house will all the Italian imports (or Panama City Beach imports) that you can afford. Deforesting and colonization is Manifest Destiny, so build away.
Where it gets interesting is when you start asking who’s selling these escapist slices of cow pasture. On the “contact us” page for Hampstead (the real estate thing, not the “institute”) you’re directed to contact Jim Farrior, Director of Hampstead Commercial Leasing & Sales at Colonial Commercial Realty, Inc. He’s also featured over at Colonial Commercial Realty’s website, where he is listed just above a guy named Josh Lowder, who is the vice-president of CCR, in addition to being on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. You can learn more about this young corporate exec in this cheerful RSVP Montgomery profile.
What does all this have to do with EatSouth? We’re getting back to it. Josh isn’t the only Lowder in this tapestry. There’s also his dad, Jimmy, who was described in 2008 this way:
Mr. Lowder has served as chairman of the board of The Colonial Company and its subsidiaries since 1995. He is a current member of the Home Builders Association of Alabama and the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association, and he serves on the board of directors of Alabama Power Company. Mr. Lowder is the current chairman of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a past board member of Leadership Montgomery, past president of the board of the Montgomery YMCA and past chairman of the Montgomery Area United Way Champaign. The Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts presented The Colonial Company with the 1997 Business in the Arts Award and in 2000 with the coveted Frank Plummer Memorial Arts Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Lowder was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association in 2004. He graduated with the highest honors from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science Degree. Mr. Lowder is a member of the investment committee of the board of trustees.
High roller, eh? He is also featured in this amazing photo, which tells you his lineage and connections to a gigantic 2009 bank failure — the sixth largest bank failure in American history, to be specific. More on that here.
So we’ve got young Josh Lowder living in the Colonial real estate subdivision, trying to get you to buy a house out there at Hampstead where they have an urban farm. Colonial also has the A&P Lofts, which is home to True, that restaurant that is featured in nearly every issue of Made. Made is run by another local Lowder (Anna) and her husband Harvi Sahota.
Oh, and according to the documents filed with the IRS, the Hampstead Institute (doing business as EatSouth) was founded by three folks, two of whom are married to each other. That’s right — Harvi Sahota and Anna Lowder. Sahota runs a “design and communications” company based in the aforementioned A&P Lofts. His company, called Matter, seems to design and produce Made, as well as do design and PR work for nearly every above listed entity, including Eat South, True, Tipping Point, and the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.
There’s one other interesting connection that implicates you, a concerned tax-paying Montgomery resident. As of last summer, we have a new civil servant in town. Mac McLeod became our city’s “director of retail and commercial development.” His previous job? President and CEO of Colonial Group. From whom did the city government use $1.95 million of your tax dollars to purchase the land upon which to build the new east Montgomery high school? Correct.
Did you know that EatSouth is actually EAT South because EAT is an acronym standing for Educate, Act and Transform? And certainly it’s a good thing to give presentations to local kids about healthy eating. It’s good to show people how food is grown and to talk to them about food waste and organic farming and sustainable agriculture. It’s better to have a downtown urban farm than a toxic Superfund site.
But it would also be better to have a local food awareness group that was promoting vegetarian potlucks and environmentalism that didn’t feel like a greenwashing campaign for a gigantic corporate real estate holdings with fingers in nearly every pot of money for miles.
Speaking of good eating, who doesn’t love biscuits? According to the March 2014 issue of River Region Living magazine, the Poarch Creek Indian casino (Wind Creek) will give $5,000 to EatSouth for every Montgomery Biscuits home run hit in 2013. I’m no minor league baseball historian, but the Biscuits hit 72 homers in 2013. That’s 72 homers x $5,000 = $360,000. That’s a sweet pile of syrup for Edwin Marty (who is by accounts a pretty nice guy) to be walking away from.
EatSouth’s website says that such numbers only reflect a small portion of their operating budget. Their funding website says that 20 percent of their income comes from produce sales (we understand they run a legitimately great CSA), 20 percent grants, 25 percent corporate support, 20 percent individual donations, 10 percent events, and 5 percent program service fees. The only event of theirs we’ve ever been to out at Hampstead was some kind of beer tasting. It was pretty good.
We live in a world where image is everything, and a lot of good people think that having a food-centered non-profit is a good rebuttal to the existing stereotype of Montgomery as a crime-ridden blight factory. But if it’s important to look beyond the superficial image of Montgomery as dumpy, it’s also important to look beyond the image projected by alternative narratives. It’s crucial to be clear-eyed about tangible results being created and what money is creating them. And in that sense, EatSouth is leaving us hungry for more.