A healthy future for food access

With a group of highly motivated and innovative people working together at the table, the future of Memphis food systems is looking bright.
Over the last five years, a shift has taken place in Memphis' approach to food access. Aggressive efforts to push the city forward are in proportional response to the severity of the problem. A 2010 Gallup poll ranked Memphis as the top city for hunger in the country. According to statistics from Tennessee’s Food Trust, almost 13 percent of the state’s census tracts are considered food deserts — communities with little or no access to healthy foods. A Mid-South Food Bank survey in 2010 reported that 83 percent of the food bank’s patrons had to choose between buying food and paying utilities, while 32 percent had to choose between buying food and paying rent or mortgage.

Motivated by these stark statistics on local food security, a diverse community is working on the issue from diverse angles. From grassroots efforts and community gardens through access within traditional retail establishments and public schools, Memphis is evolving and the rocky terrain of food security is becoming fertile ground for new ideas. Now many people and vital organizations are working together to transform the way Memphians engage with food. A look at the latest developments across the city’s food access spectrum shows that more people are entering that conversation each day.

The Food Advisory Council for Memphis and Shelby County
The Food Advisory Council for Memphis and Shelby County began as a committee within the non-profit GrowMemphis with aspirations of strengthening the local food economy. "We basically look at food policy in Memphis and Shelby County and work to increase food security and remove barriers to it," said Abby Miller, council board member. "We look at policies and procedures to improve community food access and improve the economic options for the local food system."

Miller said she’s seeing a renewed interest in bringing healthy and culturally appropriate food to communities across the nation, not just in Memphis. Community gardens, grassroots efforts, hands-on gardening education in schools – it’s all on trend right now as national momentum for healthier living increases. "As for the council, we’re looking at more structural issues, like the accessibility of a full-service grocery store and being able to bring fruit into corner stores in certain areas of Memphis," she said.

The council recently completed a survey of more than 125 corner stores as groundwork for understanding what policy intervention and incentives might be possible to increase healthy foods in convenience stores, many of which are neighborhood resources in the food deserts of Memphis. "So many of our communities only have access to a neighborhood corner store and not a full grocery store," Miller said. "Even after the survey, I think there’s a lot of discovery that still needs to be done, which is why I think the next step is for us to look at a pilot program."

The council, along with many other members of the community, is particularly excited about a new open-source mapping tool that would help provide a more detailed analysis of Memphis’ urban agriculture landscape. The tool, funded by a $27,451 planning award from Mid-South Regional Greenprint, will combine food access information with census data to help best identify areas that need that access.

"It would answer questions like 'Where is the nearest community garden to my house?' and 'Where is the nearest farmer’s market?' From farm to table, it will map out the available healthy foods in the system," she said. "Up until now, there hasn’t been a tool that could give you a global look at the food system in Shelby County, so we’re trying to create something that can be used by both policymakers and community members." The mapping tool is scheduled for launch in June on GrowMemphis.com.

Look closely at just about anything related to a sustainable food system in Memphis, and you’ll most likely find its roots in GrowMemphis. The non-profit group was founded in 2007 as a project of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and evolved and expanded – largely and rapidly – from there.

The organization partners with communities throughout Shelby County to start citywide neighborhood garden projects – which will number close to 40 this year – but the mission encompasses much more than just gardening, says Executive Director Christopher Peterson.

"A community garden is a starting point for making a neighborhood more vibrant. It really is a catalyst for taking on a lot of different issues," Peterson said. "When we help people start community gardens, on one hand it’s about people who don’t have access to fresh food growing that food for themselves, but most of the projects also fall in that wide array of other social goals, such as working with youth and the elderly. Economic opportunity also is a big issue for many of our gardeners, such as the opportunity to grow and sell food and develop job skills."

Given all the benefits, Peterson said he’s constantly working to correct the misconception that GrowMemphis is a handout.

"We don’t run or operate any of our gardens. We provide training and resources for people who want to do the work in their own neighborhoods. I think that’s a message that doesn’t always get out," he said. "These are really hard-working people who care about their neighborhoods and want to see a big change."

This spring, GrowMemphis will kick off a tool drive in the hopes that local gardeners will donate some of their gently used tools to the organization. "Those tool donations will go toward our collective tool sharing that we loan out to the gardens when they have large groups of volunteers or when a garden has something that breaks or needs to be replaced," he said. "We’re still working off the same collaborative tool set that we used back when we had only 20 gardens. The more gardens we get, the more those resources are stretched."

Knowledge Quest’s Green Leaf Learning Farm
In the spectrum of Memphis’ food system, Knowledge Quest’s Green Leaf Learning Farm at 590 Jennette Place is in the process of becoming something of a crossover artist. The educational agriculture program started in 2011 as a cluster of raised garden beds in a group of vacant lots as a tool for mitigating blight, teaching students, and bolstering food security through student meals, farmers market sales and food pantry distribution.  Over time, the organization began to steward and then acquire more neighboring lots. And more.

Today, the original 3/4-acre plot is well on its way to becoming a thriving urban farm as it prepares to more-than double in size, thanks to a $50,000 Mid-South Regional Greenprint grant. The expansion, orchestrated by Self+Tucker Architects and landscape architecture firm JPA Inc., will include an orchard, chickens and expanded educational opportunities for students, among other elements, said Knowledge Quest Founder and Executive Director Marlon Foster.

"We have second- through eighth-grade cooking classes and, as of last year, those classes have morphed into a now formal ninth- through 12th-grade culinary academy," Foster said. "It’s really knowledge-sourcing from local vendors and using fresh produce for our students with career interests there – not only to cook, but also to grow and to understand organic farming. With student education, it pushes us to maintain a level of excellence, and then you imagine those students going forward in a career, whether it’s owning a restaurant or becoming a grower or a chef or a combination of the three," Foster says.

With a growing interest among students combined with a growing plot of land, Foster is optimistic about getting Memphis off those lists of discouraging statistics. "I think the outlook is definitely bright," he said. "There is more momentum around access to healthy food, food security and food justice. We’re really approaching a high arch in Memphis in particular and it is very exciting."

South Memphis Farmers Market
Located at the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and South Parkway and tying the main players of this story neatly together, the South Memphis Farmers Market is home to vendors such as the Green Leaf Learning Farm and GrowMemphis gardens, among others.

It’s the place where growers come to sell the literal fruits of their labors. It’s the place where food desert dwellers come to gather healthy food for their tables. It’s a symbol of battles won by the Food Advisory Council, such as allowing farmers to offer food samples at their booths. It’s a center for purchasing power, as the market – in partnership with GrowMemphis – will provide a dollar-for-dollar match up to $10 when shoppers spend their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits on fresh produce there.

And, as of last week, it’s a sign of giant progress in food accessibility in South Memphis.

"The outdoor market will start its fifth season this May," said Curtis Thomas, deputy executive director for The Works, a community development corporation serving South Memphis and the Greater Memphis area. "It turned out to be bigger than anyone ever dreamed. Our sales were great, our attendance was wonderful, and so we eventually received funding to renovate an old fish market on the site."

That $1.2 million in grants transformed the vacant 3,600-square-foot Carter’s Fish Market into a green grocer, which had its soft opening April 8. Unlike the outdoor market, which is open on Thursdays during the growing seasons, the green grocer will be open year-round, with 1,800 square feet of retail space and a 1,200-square-foot teaching kitchen for demonstrations and cooking classes.

"When things are in season, we’ll be sourcing produce for the store from our local farmers. When things are not available from local farmers, we’ll be getting it wholesale to have a nice, well-rounded offering," Thomas said. "Things will be labeled clearly, so people will know what farm it comes from or whether it’s wholesale. And another part of the strategy is sustainable job creation. As we bring on staff in the store, they’ll be community residents."

Thomas said he’s particularly excited about the education aspect. Access to healthy food is one thing, but making sure people know how to make the most of it is key. "We’ve had four years as an outdoor market, and it’s grown every year. The farmers have made better sales, and it’s very clear to us that people in this community want to be able to buy this food in their neighborhoods and use it," he said. "But there’s still work to do. As we keep growing in our capacity, this new store lets us serve even more people, some who have never cooked with these foods at home. It’s equally important for us to provide the opportunity for them to learn how to do that. We’re looking forward to offering our first classes in the next couple of weeks."

Read more articles by Erinn Figg.

Erinn is a Memphis-based freelance writer with 11 years of experience as a beat journalist, columnist, editor and freelance writer for a variety of publications. Erinn is also an award-winning PR professional who has worked with local firms archer>malmo and Obsidian Public Relations. Contact Erinn and follow her on Twitter at @allcapsERINN.
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