A food desert is a neighborhood with no supermarkets – a place where you can’t buy fresh fruits or vegetables. The small corner stores carry canned and dried food that keeps well on the shelf but is less nutritious than fresh produce, often high in fat and sugar.
For a city of its size, Richmond, Virginia is the worst food desert in the nation, but an effort is underway to fix that problem.
It’s a sultry afternoon on Richmond’s historic Church Hill. Bobby Ellis parks his black SUV outside the Clay Street Market – leaving the radio on as he heads in to stock up on summer essentials. James Brown, Willie Robinson and Serge Lewis are also picking up supplies.
“What do you usually buy at this store? Oh cigarettes. Potato chips, sodas, mostly beer and alcohol. No fresh fruits and vegetables. I would buy fresh fruits and vegetables. He don’t have the variety that I like. No corn, no lettuce, no lima beans. Would you like to have the fresh fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood? Of course!”
Which is where Virginia Community Capital comes in. That group persuaded eight not-for-profits, government agencies and corporations to launch a program – offering small payments to corner stores willing to carry a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Supplies come from Tricycle Gardens – a group that uses vacant land in Richmond to grow crops.
“Right now in the summer time you’ll find tomatoes and peppers and squash and eggplant, and then in then as we move into the fall fall we’ll have our collard greens and lettuces and beets and turnips and broccoli.”
Tricycle’s director, Sally Schwitters, says local children are a central part of the growing effort – discovering where food comes from and saying the darndest things.
“That’s a carrot? I’ve never had a blackberry before. It’s surprising, but it’s also beautiful to see a child delight in a love for broccoli that they didn’t know they had, because they’ve never enjoyed it fresh.”
Some parents have no idea how to prepare fresh produce, so Tricycle Gardens also offers cooking demonstrations:
"We’re working with community members who do have a love for cooking foods and holding cooking demonstrations, nutrition education. We did tastings of a cucumber-tomato salad that people were at first reluctant – I’m not sure I want to try that -- and then came back for more and more.”
So far, only two corner stores on Richmond’s east side have signed up to take part in the Get Fresh program. They’ll get grants of no more than $300 this year, but Virginia Community Capital’s Paul Nolde hopes to expand into other neighborhoods and eventually go statewide.
“It’s not going to happen overnight , but eventually the buying habits and the eating habits probably will changes, just because there’s access now.”
The coalition surveyed more than 200 residents before planting this year’s crops and it continues to get feedback from potential customers – to supply the vegetables and fruits they want at their neighborhood stores.