New program helps community members access fresh produce

VT38754_20111005-23What’s for dinner? For some, making a quick run to the grocery store for fresh produce is not an option. In Suffolk, Virginia, some families must travel as far as 25 miles to buy fresh produce.

In short, they are in a desert — a food desert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “low-income communities without ready access to healthy and affordable food.” Food deserts can be attributed to an absence of grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers in an area.

“It’s very alarming when we have people going to North Carolina because groceries are so far away from them,” said Marcus Williams, an agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Suffolk.

Extension agents like Williams want to reduce the prevalence of food deserts in Virginia. With the help of the Obici Healthcare Foundation, Williams and his colleagues from Virginia Beach, Newport News, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University have started an initiative to help those living in food deserts.

To date, Extension has held four events in Suffolk to teach community members about nutrition, finance, food identification, and cooking. The grocery store chain Farm Fresh partnered with Extension to provide gift cards to participants, and the American
Red Cross supplied cookbooks and educational materials.

During each event, participants learn about food deserts and what is being done in their communities to improve access to fresh foods. Through hands-on activities, participants also learn about vegetables, nutrition, cooking, and finances. During lunch they have an opportunity to ask questions and network with other participants and experts. At the conclusion of the event, participants are given fresh produce along with a Buy Fresh Buy Local guide, a colander, measuring cups, and the American Red Cross cookbook.

During four food desert events, more than 4,000 pounds of produce were distributed to 176 people.

As community members become more educated about buying fresh, local produce, local farms are also seeing benefits. Because of these events, four local farmers have seen 10 percent increases in fruit and vegetable sales.

Over time, Williams would like to see these programs become self-sufficient. He also wants to provide even more programs and resources to the communities. One idea is to create a mobile farmers market to bring produce to food deserts throughout the city. This form of food hub would in turn help local farmers have an outlet to sell their fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

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