On March 26th I had the opportunity to attend a program sponsored by the Delaware Historical Society entitled Forks in the Road. This panel discussion, addressing contemporary food issues in Delaware, was the first in a series the Historical Society plans to present over the next year and a half. The talk was moderated by Ed Kee, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture and the panel included two farmers, Larry Jester and Georgie Cartanza; former Chief Planner for the DE Department of Agriculture, Michael McGrath; Director of Marketing for the Kenny Family Shoprite, Dan Tanzer and Produce Director for Urban Acres Produce, LLC, Michael Minor.
While all the panelists were engaging and I had interest in all the topics that were discussed, I was particularly interested in Mr. Minor’s discussion of Urban Acres Produce. Urban Acres operates 4 produce stands, selling locally grown produce when possible, in Wilmington’s East Side, a community lacking easy access to healthy food. The term used to describe communities that lack convenient access to healthy food is a food desert. A governmental working group comprised of members from various agencies including the USDA defines a food desert as a “low income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Food deserts exist in every state, in urban locations and rural settings surrounded by growing produce.
Several aspects of this venture appeal to me. First, Urban Acres’ produce stands are an innovative way to introduce healthy food to residents in an area that has limited access to fresh produce. These stands operate from May through November in 4 different locations. (For days, hours and locations click on link below) The stands are situated in convenient places that significant numbers of residents frequent, like apartment building parking lots or churches, in hopes of reaching more residents. In addition to just selling produce, Mr. Minor discussed the necessity of educating people about the importance of eating healthy food whenever possible.
Urban Acres welcomes volunteers but also utilizes paid staff members from the community to run its produce stands. Urban Acres was started not only as a means of getting produce into a food desert, but as a way to provide a community resident with a job. By engaging the community, either through employment or as volunteers, Urban Acres is empowering the citizens of the East Side to create a better situation for themselves. With Urban Acres as an employer, the community will also have a vested interest in the success of these produce stands in order to keep those jobs in the community.
Finally, these produce stands provide access to local produce during the growing season. The nutrient content of produce begins to decrease once it is harvested. Local produce is likely to be higher in nutrients because there is a shorted time between harvest and consumption. It is better for the environment since it has less of a distance to travel to get to market, using less fuel and creating less pollution. Finally, by purchasing local produce Urban Acres is also assisting smaller, often family farming operations and supporting the local economy. But perhaps the best reason to provide local produce is that it just tastes better because it is picked at the peak of ripeness!
Some may wonder why I am spending a blog post discussing urban produce stands. Hunger, food insecurity and food deserts are all pieces to the same puzzle. These problems speak to larger issues in our society like wage inequality, unemployment and poverty. They are also intertwined with what the government subsidizes, large agribusiness growing corn and soybeans, and what it does not, smaller farming operations growing a diversity of produce. These subsidies help make heavily processed food cheaper and produce more expensive. Finally, making produce available in communities which have had limited access to it connects with my discussion of cooking from scratch and stretching food dollars. You can’t cook what you can’t purchase due to lack of access.
I am encouraged when I see a community coming together to create a solution for its specific problem. As I told friends and family that I was planning to assist the hungry and food insecure, several people told me this was an issue of concern for them, but they were overwhelmed by the size of the problem and felt immobilized with helplessness. I was too initially, but decided my mission was to work within my community to bring awareness to the existence of food insecurity and other food scarcity issues and to help find solutions to lessen the numbers of people experiencing these problems. I am using this blog to chronicle that effort, but also to educate others on the larger, national issues and hopefully build a community to grow ideas and create solutions to these problems. Some of the best catalysts for change have come out of local, grassroot operations.