The Quick Mart on Williamsburg Road in Richmond, Va., is your typical corner store. It does a brisk business in cigarettes and newspapers, along with convenience foods, like Cheez-Its and potato chips. It’s located in the city’s Greater Fulton neighborhood, which means its customers are mostly low income. There is one thing that sets the Quick Mart apart from other shops, though: It’s the only place within a nearly two-mile radius where customers can buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since May 2013, the Quick Mart has been stocking a portable refrigerator with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, lettuces and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Every week it receives a delivery from Tricycle Gardens, a local nonprofit whose mission is to grow healthy foods and get them on people’s plates in low-income Richmond neighborhoods. On a busy Monday afternoon last October, the Quick Mart fridge was empty, save for a couple of handfuls of okra and some collard greens.
“Everything’s selling,” says store owner Ayad Nasher, 26. “Whatever I got there in the cooler, they want it. I’ve been explaining to people that we have fresh vegetables now because we didn’t have it before, and they love it.”
There are some 18.3 million Americans currently living in food deserts — low-income areas with limited access to a supermarket or other source of fresh food — which are more than a mile from a grocery store in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural communities, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. People who live in these areas are more likely to eat poor diets and to be at higher risk of becoming obese and developing chronic obesity-related diseases. Richmond is one of the most densely populated food deserts in the nation; many of its residents can’t afford a car or the bus fare necessary to reach a grocery store.
The problem with the food-desert epidemic is that there’s no clear solution — or at least not one that’s been adequately shown to work. Public health experts have been very good about accurately mapping the precise location of the country’s thousands of food deserts, but they haven’t been as successful in getting to the next step: identifying ways to shrink them. One obvious answer may be simply to build more grocery stores. In fact, in January, the House finally passed the farm bill, which included a provision for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that will provide $125 million to fund the construction of healthy food retailers in underserved neighborhoods.
Improving food access helps. But recent research suggests that while building new grocery stores can increase people’s perceptions of healthy food availability in their community, it might not be enough to actually change their shopping behaviors. There are lots of reasons people shop and eat the way the way they do. It goes beyond mere access: They like buying their food from the same neighborhood store owner they’ve known for decades; and they like cooking and eating with their families and preserving their culinary traditions. They don’t particularly like it when outsiders drop in to wag their fingers and tell them to eat their fruits and vegetables.
That may help to explain Tricycle Gardens’ success. Rather than building an invasive, new superstore, the nonprofit is wisely using the resources Richmond already has. Tricycle Gardens’ Get Fresh East End! initiative gets affordable, organic and delicious foods to low-income communities through existing channels — the Quick Mart and, about 2 miles northwest, the Clay Street Market. All the produce comes from Tricycle Gardens’ half-acre, high-yield urban farm in the nearby Manchester neighborhood. Opened in 2010, it produces 20,000 pounds of food a year. “There’s incredible flavor in locally grown food that hasn’t been trucked across countries or states,” says Tricycle Gardens’ executive director, Sally Schwitters. “One thing you can’t outsource is locally grown food.”
Tricycle’s program coordinator Claire Sadeghzadeh interacts directly with the corner store owners and personally delivers their produce twice weekly. On average, she drops off anywhere from $4 to $12 worth of fruits and vegetables per delivery at each store and constantly monitors which items are selling and which aren’t. She says Get Fresh East End! — which is supported in part by Virginia Community Capital, another nonprofit working to increase food access — plans to expand to eight additional stores by the end of 2014. “I think it helps dispel that myth that low-income families don’t eat healthy or that they don’t want healthy food,” Sadeghzadeh says. “And we know that they do. I think it’s superpowerful to see that all of our produce is pretty much sold out every week.”
Quick Mart’s Nasher, who has started cooking for himself using the produce at his store, says “it would be great” to see more shops in the area carrying fresh, locally grown food from the nonprofit. “I’m here to help the community,” says Nasher, who moved to the United States from Yemen in 2003. “To get fresh fruits and vegetables has been amazing.”
At the same time that it’s increasing healthy food access, Tricycle Gardens is also working hard to reconnect local growers with their buyers. People become more mindful of what they eat when they know where their food is coming from — even more so when they’re taught how to cook it properly. Tricycle Gardens offers various classes for community members, so they can learn how to prepare their produce — everything from bell peppers, onions and cucumbers to squash and eggplant — once it’s obtained. “The distribution is critical, but complementing that with education and outreach events — to show that preparing this great food can be easy and affordable, great fun and incredibly delicious — is where we know the changes that we hope to see can happen,” Schwitters says.
One especially rewarding moment sticks out in her mind. Tricycle Gardens set up a stand at the Greater Fulton Community Health Fair last May, and offered local residents a fresh salad from the farm. A mother and son approached the stand; Schwitters handed the child a bowl. The salad was full of food that kids love to hate: raw kale and collard greens, topped with broccoli and carrots.
“Oh, he’s not going to eat that,” the mother said.
“Well, let me just hand it to him and if he doesn’t eat it, that’s fine. We’ll compost it and it’ll go back into our garden,” Schwitters said.
Schwitters says she turned away for a brief conversation with the boy’s mom, and when she turned back, the salad was gone. He wanted seconds. “We see this time and time again,” says Schwitters, whose grandfather was a farmer. “It’s very different eating freshly grown broccoli that has a crunch and a sweetness and a beauty to it, as opposed to that mush that comes out of a frozen bag.”
Tricycle Gardens, which has a full-time staff of just four and draws on a network of nearly 500 volunteers and interns, runs a year-round weekly farm stand and helps maintain five community gardens and three learning gardens, which provide ample opportunities for children at schools and community centers to connect with the food they eat. With its partners, the Bon Secours Richmond Health System and the Children’s Museum of Richmond, the nonprofit also runs two healing gardens, spaces for reflection and solitude. The food from the healing gardens further helps feed employees of the health system and museum.
“We want to share the magic of looking at a tiny seed and wondering how, with a little love and sunshine and a home in some beautifully composted soil, this could become something that ends up feeding you,” Schwitters says. “That connection lasts a lifetime.”
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