YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — In 2015, three vacant lots sat across the street from Martin Luther Lutheran Church, in Youngstown, Ohio.
Today, those lots contain the Hope for Newport Community Garden, a place that provides free, fresh produce for the community and offers gardening classes and other educational events for children.
It started with Carole Conatser, a member of the church, reading about community gardens in other cities and states. Many of those gardens were started in vacant lots. She noticed the vacant lots right next to the church.
“I thought, ‘that’s a waste,’” she said.
As she read about more community gardens, Conatser also realized the closest full grocery store is several miles away. Many in the area do not have cars.
“We were right smack-dab in the middle … of a food desert,” she said.
So, in 2015, Conatser helped found the garden with the church. They have funded the garden through grants from the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Raymond John Wean Foundation, among other organizations, and donations. Over the years, they added a meadow and an orchard.
“It’s just grown and grown and gotten more beautiful, I think, each year,” Conatser said.
Once the vegetables from the garden are harvested, Conatser and other garden workers offer the vegetables to people in the neighborhood for free.
“It’s more than giving away fresh produce,” she said. “It’s connecting with our neighbors.”
The Newport neighborhood is not the only part of Youngstown that struggles with food access. At a public meeting with mayoral candidates in 2016, Action Youngstown, a nonprofit, faith-based group that works on solutions to racism, poverty and social injustice, asked the candidates to commit to working on the food deserts in Youngstown. The candidates agreed.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown was elected to office that year, and soon after, declared Youngstown a food desert, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture definitions. USDA maps show that many people in the city live over a mile from the nearest grocery store. Factoring in people who live more than half of a mile from a store shows that the whole city is a food desert.
The city had a population of about 65,000 in 2019, down about 2% from 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 36% of the city lives in poverty.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done for food access and food insecurities,” Brown told Farm and Dairy in an interview.
Brown’s administration put together a food policy committee to discuss food access challenges with other organizations in the city and figure out how to address them.
While the term “food deserts” makes it sound like there is no food present, that’s not necessarily the issue.
“Access is kind of a multifaceted concept,” said Jill Clark, of the Ohio Network of Food Policy Councils.
It’s a matter of having stores, having money to afford a healthy diet, having transportation and having time to get to the stores.
A town might have a gas station that sells hot dogs, but no grocery store. A city might have grocery stores, but no good way for residents without cars to get there. An area might have many low-income households, where people may not have the time and money to shop at or get to some stores.
In Youngstown, there are a few grocery stores in the city. But for many people, especially those without cars, they are too far away, Brown said.
It’s hard to get grocers to invest in areas that are food deserts, Clark said. Because of the way stores have consolidated, actual physical buildings where they are housed are fewer and bigger. In a densely populated urban area, land prices tend to be high, and there isn’t as much space for these stores to build. There also may be more concentrated poverty.
In rural areas, on the other hand, there might not be enough residents to support a large supermarket.
So, many stores are built in the suburbs, where it is cheaper to build and where there are enough people to make it worth the store owners’ time, Clark said.
“For the most part, bigger retailers don’t really blink away from their traditional model,” Clark said. “Urban areas are missing pocketbooks. Rural areas are missing population.”
In Youngstown, Brown said, poverty is a large part of the issue. But so is getting people to invest in the city. Over the years, he has seen grocery stores come in and out of the community. Several times, a grocery store came in that seemed to be what the community needed. Then, a national food chain bought them out and shut them down.
But this issue is also what made him realize that the city still has buying power.
“If you look at where we spend our money, it’s outside of the city,” he said. “I think those here have to realize their potential buying power.”
If residents support grocery stores that come into the city, instead of buying outside of Youngstown, he said, they can help keep the stores there.
Rose Carter, executive director for Action, still thinks that the thing Youngstown needs most to improve the food access situation is another brick and mortar store. But, she added, the community also needs to take ownership of that store.
“If they do not take ownership, then, yeah, we’re going to fail,” she said.
To her, taking ownership means investing time, energy and money into planning the store and making the area a place that a store owner would want to build.
Brown said the next step for his food policy committee is to find grocers who have an opportunity to come into the city in the neighborhoods that need them the most, and figure out how to bring them in.
“We need to change the narrative of what Youngstown was versus what Youngstown will be in the future,” Brown said.
Community work, Carter said, is part of why Youngstown’s food access situation isn’t worse in the meantime.
Partnering with GROW Urban Farm, run by Flying HIGH, Action has offered pop-up markets around Youngstown over the summer for the last few years. Conatser noted that the community garden is also looking at getting involved with the pop up markets in the future.
Flying HIGH is a group that helps people become marketable for employment and overcome barriers that they face — such as a criminal record, or recovering from an addiction. It offers skills training for things like welding and nurse’s aide positions.
“The farm is a wonderful tool,” said Jeff Magada, executive director of Flying HIGH. “It gives individuals a time to acclimate to the work environment.”
Magada said people in the program can work on the farm, receiving a training stipend, while they work on training for another job.
“I’m a social worker,” Magada said. “The best social work I’ve ever done with individuals is at the farm.”
At the same time, Magada said, the farm benefits the community, since it provides locally-grown, fresh produce in a city that has food deserts. The farm, started in 2012, includes about 39 raised beds.
“There’s always a lot of work on the farm, and there was a community need for it,” he said.
Transportation is part of the challenge for some in Youngstown. Taxis cost money. It’s not easy to carry food on the bus, or on the walk home from the bus stop.
At pop up markets, Action is doing surveys to find out how far people who come to the markets are from grocery stores and to keep track of how many people they are feeding.
The pandemic has been a challenge for many in Ohio, including Youngstown citizens. An Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association report found that 1.5 million Ohioans struggle to afford food. That was before unemployment in the state jumped to 16.8% in April.
“We’re seeing problems that already existed. They’re just so more visible now,” Clark said.
Added to that, Brown noted, people who use public transportation to get to stores and people who work in grocery stores, both of whom tend to be vulnerable and often come from low income areas, are at a greater risk of being exposed to the virus.
Despite these challenges, groups are continuing to work on solutions. Action has also been delivering meals to seniors and school children and working with other groups to shop for seniors during the pandemic. It has also been working on a plan to offer online healthy cooking classes, to replace the original in-person classes it planned to have this year.
Carter has heard from family and friends who never expected to need help getting food, but found themselves in that situation this year.
“It has hurt us a lot,” Carter said. “People have access to [food] because of all the different organizations, but still, with the unemployment, it’s kind of tough.”
Rural food access
Food access challenges aren’t limited to cities. For a period of time, Vinton County, a rural county, did not have a single supermarket. For some, that was an inconvenience that they could work around. For others, it was a major barrier.
“If you’re living in Vinton County, and low income, and have a lack of transportation, that just means something totally different,” Clark said.
Even now that there is a grocery store in the county, parts of it are still food deserts, said Kate Homonai, of the Vinton County Food Policy Council. Adding more supermarkets throughout the county, Homonai said, probably wouldn’t be doable because of how spread out the population is. A large portion of the county is taken up by national forest.
Besides, “food access is more than a grocery store,” Homonai said. For some families, transportation and money are also issues.
There’s a mix of efforts to improve the situation, she said, from food pantries, to teachers, to the health department.
Homonai said some residents set up “blessing boxes” throughout the county — those with enough money can buy extra food and put it in the boxes for those in need to pick up.
Melissa Hammond, a middle school social studies and language arts teacher for Vinton County Local Schools, got the ball rolling on the boxes about three years ago with a group of her students.
“I had a group of kids that just wanted to do something different,” she said.
People in the community had been talking about blessing boxes for a while. Other communities have put them together. So, Hammond and her husband, Steve Hammond, the current mayor of McArthur, started looking for people to sponsor boxes. Local businesses, other organizations and residents agreed to sponsor the boxes to cover costs for the wood and other materials to build them.
The Hammonds cut the wood for the boxes and took the materials to the middle school. Then, students worked on painting the pieces and putting them together. Once the boxes were done, the Hammonds put them up around the county.
Hammond put together a not-for-profit, Project Feed VC, so that people could make donations toward the blessing boxes. She fills the boxes once a week, with some of these donations, and people around the community fill them for the rest of the week.
With the donations that don’t go directly into boxes, she puts together care packages for families in need. There is also a blessing box at the local animal shelter for people who are having trouble feeding their pets.
A 4-H group also added their own blessing box at a park.
“It’s really hard to explain. There’s so many little intricate parts of it,” Hammond said.
The community has gotten behind the idea. In addition to the 4-H group, church groups, school workers and individuals across the county have helped supply the boxes. Vinton County has a population of about 13,000, about 19% of whom live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The strangest thing about it all … if you would look at us, we live in one of the poorest communities,” Hammond said. “But they have the biggest hearts for giving.”
There are currently about 11 blessing boxes throughout the county. Some are more public, like the one on Main Street in McArthur. Others are more private.
“It’s fairly anonymous,” Hammond said. “We’re not going to police our boxes … if it’s there, then it’s yours.”
The Vinton County Health Department received a Preventive Health And Health Services Block Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its Creating Healthy Communities program this year. The grant is for $100,000 per year, and can be renewed for up to five years, although the department has to resubmit for it each year.
The program’s goals for this year include increasing healthy food options in vending machines at workplaces in Elk Township, and increasing access to healthy food in McArthur by increasing farmers market participation, said Jeri Ann Bentley, program coordinator, in a July 20 virtual meeting.
The Vinton County Farmers and Crafters Market meets twice each week, once in Wilkesville and once in McArthur. Bentley said the markets typically have anywhere from two to six vendors.
Through the grant, the program is looking at buying tables, tents, chairs and other equipment that vendors can use, Bentley told Farm and Dairy. This would make it easier for new vendors to get involved, since they would not have to bring their own equipment, and would hopefully draw in more vendors.
The pandemic has been a challenge for many people. Bentley noted that it has made it harder to get the word out to the community about the program, since they have had to cancel in-person meetings, and not everyone in the county has internet access.
“It’s definitely slowed down what we’re able to do this year,” she said.
Hammond, however, says it has brought out the generosity of the community. She has gotten calls from many people wanting to help, and has seen donations increase greatly over the past few months.
“I think people have just been more giving and caring, at least in our area,” she said. “I hear others talk about it bringing out negativity in people, but I’ve only seen it bringing out people’s positive sides and wanting to help.”
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