Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Community Gardens, Food Co-ops, and Farmers Markets Provide an Oasis in ‘Food Deserts’

by Erica Hall, MA, Community Economic Development, Assistant Corporate Secretary/Senior Paralegal, NeighborWorks America

As part of her Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity, Michelle Obama said we must eliminate “food deserts” in this country. I couldn’t agree more.

Food deserts are low-income areas where full-service grocery stores are scarce and fast food chains are often plentiful. Access to healthy, affordable foods and beverages is limited, resulting in higher rates of obesity and diet-related diseases in residents.

As a community economic development (CED) practitioner, I am particularly passionate about the role community gardens, community supported agriculture, produce co-operatives, and farmers markets can play, not only in promoting a healthy lifestyle, and lifting community spirit and pride, but also creating opportunities for community economic development. Community food growing is also a source of satisfying labor, neighborhood improvement and allows for interaction with nature and the productive use of land.

I also understand that while supermarkets are anchors which bring economic development, supermarket development can take years. In the meantime, alternatives must be created to traditional supermarket development. I believe that if you can grow your own food while owning a stake in the business of food, it provides opportunities to promote entrepreneurship, ownership and microenterprise development.

In the NeighborWorks network, we see community gardens and farmers markets sprouting up all over the country. Take for example the Brooklyn Centre Community Orchard being planned in Cleveland, Ohio. This summer, residents hope to turn their Brooklyn Centre neighborhood, labeled a food desert, into a food oasis. A vacant expanse of land, which had fallen into disrepair and a magnet for crime and drugs, will be the site of the neighborhood’s first large-scale, resident-run community orchard.

Darren Hamm, sustainable housing specialist with Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland is leading this effort. Hamm, who is also president of the Brooklyn Centre Community Association, said that a course on neighborhood stabilization he took at the NeighborWorks Training Institute was his inspiration to develop the orchard.

In California, the NeighborWorks Homeownership Center of Sacramento was recently awarded a $20,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to help create a farmer’s market in the Oak Park neighborhood they serve. The new Oak Park Farmer’s Market, which opened on May 15, improves access to affordable, high-quality fruits and vegetables in an area where just one supermarket exists. It is also a source of income for a diverse group of farmers, including smaller, local and immigrant farmers from the Sacramento area. The homeownership center worked in partnership with community residents, community garden advocates, backyard growers, and fresh produce sellers to launch the farmer’s market, and the group intends to make Oak Park the sustainable food center of the Sacramento Region.

Youth get excited about growing their own food too. In Worcester, Massachusetts, Oak Hill Community Development Corporation’s Charlie Buffone Community Garden is run entirely by neighborhood youth. The vegetable and fruit garden is cultivated with all organic materials and toxic chemicals are strictly prohibited. They give away the produce to neighborhood residents, including making fruit and vegetable baskets for senior citizen homes. Check out the website, which is also maintained entirely by the young volunteers. If you’re on Facebook, see photos of their garden.

I recently had the opportunity to complete my graduate work which involved obesity prevention among African Americans, while increasing access to fresh foods, green spaces and safe places for low income communities in Washington, D.C . I became involved in a novel approach to increase access to fresh produce and other healthy foods to two of the district’s poorest areas: Wards 7 and 8. Wards 7 and 8 (east of the Anacostia River) have the District's highest poverty and obesity rates and are home to large food deserts.

The project, called the DC Healthy Corner Store Program, sought to increase access to fresh produce and other healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, and to increase small grocers’ capacity to sell healthy foods successfully. It is led by D.C. Hunger Solutions, with support and funding from the D.C. Department of Health, and in partnership with KAGRO (Korean American Grocers Association), community-based organizations, and small retailers in the city.

Please go to nw.org to learn more about this wonderful program, as well as the funding opportunities available for similar efforts through the Obama administration's $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

For more information about farmer’s markets, including funding, how to start one and where to locate them in your state, visit the USDA’s website.

More information about community gardens, including funding, locations, best practices and tips can be found at the American Community Garden Association’s website.