Building Healthy Communities With Fresh Produce

When Wahid Rashad, 65, sees young people in Chicago chugging bottles of sugary drinks and chomping on fluorescent-orange snacks, he thinks: “That’s garbage. It doesn’t enhance the brain and energy level.”

Rashad sells apples, mangoes, papayas and peppers from a produce cart in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. Among the comments he hears from customers since he started selling in the neighborhood, especially from the younger ones: “Hey, Juicy Fruit, where were you? I was looking for you.”

“I look at myself as an educator,” said Rashad, a vendor in the Neighbor Carts program. “It’s like water: Drip, drip, drip. It builds a relationship.”

Throughout the country, grassroots community programs, such as Neighbor Carts, are fueling a block-by-block movement to provide fresh fruit and vegetables in “food deserts,” urban neighborhoods and rural areas where people don’t have ready access to fresh produce.

From Chicago to Georgia to Los Angeles, community groups are launching urban gardens, partnerships with corner stores and mobile produce carts in neighborhoods that don’t have full-service grocery stores or where produce prices are high and quality is poor.

Two years ago, even First Lady Michelle Obama took time from the presidential campaign trail to address “food deserts” in her home city of Chicago, noting that some residents take several buses to buy fresh produce.

Food has long brought people together and powered communities. Now, community residents are gathering again around food – this time with the emphasis on growing, distributing and eating fresh produce.

“It’s about communities taking food sovereignty into their own hands,” said Eric Ares, an organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), which works with homeless people living on L.A.’s Skid Row.

LA CAN’s rooftop garden provides Skid Row residents with 40 to 50 five-gallon containers where they can grow green onions, beets, carrots, lettuce and tomatoes in an area that has no full-service grocery stores.

Organizers also use the produce in community seminars about diets that prevent diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

In McIntosh County, Ga., McIntosh Sustainable Environment and Economic Development (SEED) also has community gardens and operates at a farmers market.

McIntosh SEED Executive Director John Littles says that students in the community benefit by learning the value of eating fresh produce and the math and science behind growing vegetables. “There are other aspects than just working hard in the garden. We focused on the kids and let the kids take (the produce) back into the household,” he said.

Students are also involved in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood garden, which grows tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, okra, kale, garlic and collard greens. The goal of the community organization Centers for New Horizonsis to eventually use that produce in its “B’EATS boxes,” boxes of quality produce sold at corner convenience stores in Bronzeville at affordable prices.

The Centers for New Horizons is working with its partner, Our American Voice, on the program.

In January 2012, Centers for New Horizons held a “Corner Store Summit” to talk with residents and corner-store owners about the lack of access to healthy food in Bronzeville, which has tens of thousands of residents. Out of 13 corner stores in the area, one – Food ‘N More – agreed to be a partner in the B’EATS box program in 2013.

Johnnie Owens, an organizer with Centers for New Horizons, recalled spotting one corner-store advertisement that highlighted soda pop, white bread and cigarettes. “Corner stores have gotten a bad name and for good reason,” he said. “We’ve worked out an arrangement that will change that image.”

Owens said that a smaller B’EATS box designed for students might have a banana or an apple, a healthy drink and an energy bar. A larger box might have up to two pounds of collard greens, tomatoes and cucumbers for a family to use over a few days.

Owens also wants to have healthy-cooking demonstrations in the neighborhood to raise awareness.

“We like to grow herbs and peppers to replace salt,” he said. “We have high blood pressure in the African-American community.”

The healthy-food initiatives also provide employment and teach business skills.

The Neighbor Carts program, for example, is a partnership between StreetWise, a Chicago group that provides the homeless with vendor opportunities, and Neighbor Capital.

“This is meant to be a program to re-engage an underserved population who probably have significant gaps in their employment history and serve as a springboard to greater employment,” said Jim LoBianco, StreetWise executive director.

After the Great Recession hit, Wahid Rashad, the Neighbor Carts vendor in Uptown, found himself holding several mortgages in an imploding real estate market. His years of experience in human services, telemarketing and the mortgage industry were not enough to stop his slide.

“My house went into foreclosure. The company I was with went down the tubes,” he said.

He moved into the Lawson House YMCA and learned about Neighbor Carts after listening to a presentation by LoBianco.

For Rashad, selling produce at affordable prices has been meaningful work. As he said, he considers himself an educator.

The produce carts are a low-cost way to inject high-quality fruit and vegetables into Chicago neighborhoods, and half of the carts are required by city ordinance to operate in “food desert” areas, LoBianco said.

So far, this year, Neighbor Carts has 10 rolling stands in Chicago neighborhoods. By August, LoBianco expects to have about 30 produce carts in the city.

Prices can vary during the day and depend on supply, he added. For example, someone might be able to buy three bananas for $1 at 8 a.m. but can purchase five bananas for the same price at 5 p.m. The price range for produce at Neighbor Carts is $1 to $3.

Owens of Centers for New Horizons noted that the B’EATS box fresh produce program also is about improving neighborhoods.

“What we hope to do is provide the lower-income population with a stake in the community in terms of building a business,” he said. “They are contributing to the well-being of the community.”

In Chicago, organizers are seeing young people become passionate about healthy eating.

Recently, a student involved in the Centers for New Horizons program met Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The student, who was with other young people, followed the elected leader at a gathering until the two talked, said Suzy Evans, a program partner who works for Our American Voice.

“She shook his hand and explained the program to him,” Evans said.

“The kids came back so fired up.”