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4 Innovative Community Food Projects Empowering Low-Income Residents

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4 Innovative Community Food Projects Empowering Low-Income Residents

There are many community food organizations working hard to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Through urban farms, school gardens, school lunch programs and more, these groups are alleviating food insecurity and building food justice in America. WhyHunger, which supports community-based organizations that seek solutions to underlying causes of hunger and connect people with quality food, has been documenting these community members' stories through its project, Community Voices.

These projects have been made possible in part through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Food Project, which funds projects to increase food security. Here are four stories of organizations working to empower low-income communities with access to fresh and healthy food:

Community Services Unlimited

Daniella and Irene have both benefited immensely from Community Services Unlimited's programs. Photo credit: David Hanson

Community Services Unlimited (CSU) has been serving South Los Angeles for decades through its food justice efforts. CSU now has a number of programs. The first, From the Ground Up, is a youth training internship developing leaders in food and social justice. Another is Growing Healthy, which works with younger children to teach them nutrition and the basic tenets of food security and food justice. The third program is the Home Garden project, which encourages, educates and provides resources for residents wishing to grow their own food. And lastly, there is the Village Market Place, a social enterprise program that puts all of CSU's other three programs to work in the community.

Daniella, who was raised along with her seven siblings by her dad after her mom walked out on them, has been able to graduate high school and work for CSU in the Village Market Place. This is her third year with CSU. After working in the garden for two years, she now serves at the Village Market Place café. She makes healthy lunches and "produce bags," which are a "sort of week-by-week-purchase program similar to a CSA share, but more conducive to EBT consumers who can’t pay lump sums at the beginning of the growing season, as in the traditional CSA model."

Irene, also one of eight with a single mother, is enrolled in the Village Market Place program, too. She, like Daniella, interned before being hired on. Both young women want to go to college and eventually get out of South Central, but they want to continue to help their community and are grateful to CSU for providing them the opportunity to earn a wage and help their community.

The Ecology Center

David worked his way up from court-mandated volunteer to Farm Fresh Market Manager. Photo credit: David Hanson

Berkeley, California, home to the Ecology Center, does not exactly bring to mind images of poverty and food insecurity. But,"Berkeley has deep pockets of poverty and health disparities," according to Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center. “Part of our Community Food Project grant evaluation work included a 1999 health status report that correlated race and income with health outcomes. To see it on paper and understand that connection was fairly ground-shaking for the community," Bourque said.

So, after more surveys, the Ecology Center found that they needed to place farm stands near regular transit, and the stands needed to be set up with a culturally appropriate context. The center trained local youth like David McClellan to manage the stands so that "the seller matches the buyer, [which] breaks down a common problem in cities like Berkeley where lower-income residents view 'organic farm stands' as elitist and not for them." McClellan didn't know the first thing about farming or healthy food. He regularly ate at (gasp) fast food restaurants.

But that all changed when he was mandated to complete 80 hours of court-ordered service at the Ecology Center. In the three weeks it took for him to complete his hours, in which he scrubbed walls and painted classrooms, he also attended the events at the Ecology Center. HuNia, the Farm Fresh manager, saw his potential and offered him an internship. Farm Fresh Choice, one of the center's programs, "coordinates, markets, staffs and stocks produce stands in Berkeley."

McClellan worked his way up to stand manager and now he manages all three of the stands, picks up the food and handles all of the logistics of the market. He started school at Berkeley City College in 2013, but still manages the market. He said, "Out of high school I just thought I wanted to play football or be a sports agent. But this food thing has come out of nowhere. Now I think about being a nutritionist and teaching other people."

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Fare Start

The goal of the healthy lunch program in schools is to create a sustainable market that supports local farmers and improves school lunch nutrition. Photo credit: David Hanson

Fare Start, a Seattle, Washington nonprofit working to address food security, prepares meals for school lunches, childcare centers and homeless shelters using healthy, fresh and local food. The revenue generated from the contracted meals goes directly towards funding its job training and placement programs. Disadvantaged and homeless men and women and at-risk teens participate in a job training program in Fare Start's kitchen to help place them back in the workforce.

The program, in operation since 1992, has graduated more than 150 students in recent years—80 percent of whom go on to find living-wage employment—and has provided more than 6 million meals to disadvantaged men, women and children. Its success has gone nationwide with the launch of Catalyst Kitchens to bring similar programming to other communities.

This amazing program supports local farmers, offers meaningful work for those without a job and provides children with nutritious food. It's this kind of "full-circle" approach to changing our food system that we so desperately need. The goal of the healthy lunch program in schools is to create a sustainable market that supports local farmers (45 percent of the school lunch food is sourced from Washington farms) and improves school lunch nutrition for 250,000 children.

Athens Land Trust

Athens, GA residents are getting around their antiquated laws on urban farming. Photo credit: David Hanson

The Athens Land Trust has found a way to get around the city's ban on the sale of food grown in residentially zoned areas. This nonprofit in Athens, Georgia has partnered up with a school in Hancock Corridor, a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 57 percent and an unemployment rate of 16 percent. Since it’s a school, the land trust can have a market farm on the spacious, vacant schoolyard.

Four neighborhood residents have the opportunity to participate in a farmer-training program and earn a small wage for their twenty hours of work per week. Twenty more volunteers can each take home a box of produce when they contribute five hours of work per week. The rest of the produce operates as a "u-pick." 

The Athens Land Trust was able to start another garden across town at the Athena Gardens, an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens. The residents share a large backyard and occasionally share meals, such as a spaghetti dinner, where 49 residents shared 65 pounds of greens harvested from the season's first planting. Deborah Collela manages the garden with the help of the maintenance supervisor for the center, Mike, and plenty of eager residents looking to get their hands dirty.

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