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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.”

The Neighbor Carts program offers fresh produce in Chicago neighborhoods, including those without easy access to fruit and vegetables, and hires homeless people to be vendors. Photo by Brittany Langmeyer from StreetWise

“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 Chicago\’s Bronzeville neighborhood, young people are working at a community garden to help introduce fresh produce in the area. Photo courtesy of Centers for New Horizons

  • Residents in Chicago\’s Bronzeville neighborhood are working to address \”food deserts,\” where community members have to travel long distances for fruits and vegetables. Photo courtesy of Centers for New Horizons

  • Community groups in Chicago hope students will learn science and math skills while working in the community garden in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Centers for New Horizons

  • Staff members at Chicago\’s Centers for New Horizons are encouraging healthy eating through cooking demonstrations. There is concern that some corner stores do not provide fresh produce. Photo courtesy of Centers for New Horizons

  • On the roof of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) building in Skid Row, staff members and homeless residents are growing produce because there is no close grocery store to meet the demand. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • The fresh produce grown on the roof of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) building is used in classes about diabetes and other health conditions. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • Staff members at Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) in the city\’s Skid Row neighborhood are growing produce in containers on their roof. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) staff members say they are trying to coordinate with other urban gardens in the city as part of an overall effort to give people access to fresh produce. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • Standing on top of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) building, a woman holds up her harvest from an urban garden. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • The Southern California sunshine hits home-grown carrots at the urban container garden at the Los Angeles Community Action Network building on Skid Row. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) building is home to containers full of home-grown produce, including lettuce, carrots, beets and tomatoes. Photo courtesy of LA CAN

  • In Chicago, the Neighbor Carts program is putting mobile produce stands on corners, including areas where there\’s little fresh produce, to give people easier access to fruits and vegetables. Photo by Brittany Langmeyer from StreetWise

  • The Neighbor Carts fresh produce program in Chicago is employing people who are homeless or near homeless to be vendors. Photo by Brittany Langmeyer from StreetWise

  • Wahid Rashad, 65, works as a vendor for the Neighbor Carts fresh produce program in Chicago\’s Uptown neighborhood. With his customers, he talks about diet and healthy food. Photo Brittany Langmeyer from StreetWise

  • Wahid Rashad, 65, is a former mortgage broker. These days, he works as a fresh produce vendor in Chicago and enjoys talking with customers about neighborhood news and food. Photo by Brittany Langmeyer from StreetWise

  • In Darien, Ga., McIntosh SEED, a community group, operates a farmers market for residents in this rural part of the state. Photo courtesy of McIntosh SEED

  • The McIntosh SEED fresh produce program in Darien, Ga. involves students, who learn about science and math, in addition to working in the garden. Photo courtesy of McIntosh SEED

  • A young woman holds fresh produce as part of the McIntosh SEED garden program in Darien, Ga. Photo courtesy of McIntosh SEED

  • McIntosh SEED directors in Darien, Ga. hope that the introduction of gardening and fresh produce to kids can help them influence the eating habits of adults. Photo courtesy of McIntosh SEED.

  • Young people can help start conversations with adults about the importance of eating fresh vegetables, the director of McIntosh Seed in Georgia says. Photo courtesy of McIntosh SEED

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 Horizons is 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.

Neighbor Carts hopes to have about 30 locations in Chicago by August. This map shows many of them. Green bubbles are open locations. Yellow means a June opening and blue indicates opening by August.

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.

Tell Us About Your Community Garden

On the Equal Voice News Facebook page, post your photographs and a summary of your efforts — whether it’s planters or a farmers market — to fill urban and rural “food deserts” with fruit and veggies.


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.”


Brad Wong is assistant news editor for Equal Voice News.

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

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