Bring It Food Hub: an oasis in Memphis' food deserts

A 2010 Gallup poll ranked Memphis as the most food-insecure major city in America. Bring It Food Hub seeks to address that problem, connecting low-income Memphians with farm-fresh regional produce.

"Oh my goodness. What on earth is this?"

Dawn Stein, age 46, is unpacking a brown paper bag full of fresh fruits and vegetables. So far she's unloaded some strawberries and a sleek, yellow summer squash. Now she's holding up a bunch of greens with bright red stems. The leaves are huge and crinkly, like something out of Jurassic Park.

"That’s Swiss chard," explains Alex Greene. "It's one of our heartier greens. I like to sauté it with a little white wine and some garlic."

Greene is the manager of Bring It Food Hub, a new nonprofit that connects Memphians with regional farmers. Stein is one of his customers; she's a member of Bring It's CSA (community-supported agriculture), a subscription service that furnishes her with a bag of local produce each week. Stein says she and her husband found out about Bring It through a recent profile in the Commercial Appeal.

"We're trying to eat more local," she says. "The food's fresher that way. It tastes better. So I googled [Bring It], and I thought, hey, that looks cool!"

Like Stein, many Memphians want to eat local, but most don't have the time or resources to develop a relationship with a farmer. That's where Bring It comes in. Working with about 20 farmers within a 150-mile radius of Memphis, the nonprofit sources everything from bing cherries and bell peppers to spring onions and sugar snap peas.

The result, each week, is a hassle-free bag of local veggies, delivered to one of several pick-up sites around the city. Greene and Stein are currently standing in the basement of Germantown Methodist Church, one of the pick-up sites. While they're talking, another CSA member, Lorinda Hill, walks up to get her bag.

"Oh my gosh," says Hill, "do they have the broccoli this week? That was hands-down the best broccoli I've ever tasted. So tender. I told all my girls in Jazzercise about it."

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. In the United States, the movement started in the 1980s in New England, influenced by sustainable and organic farming techniques pioneered in Europe. Today there are more than 12,000 CSAs in the United States alone.

Here's how it works. At the beginning of a growing season, a customer buys a share in the future harvest of a farmer or group of farmers. Each week for the duration of the season, she receives a bag of fresh produce, which often includes things like milk, honey and eggs. In this way, farmers and customers share both the risks (e.g., bugs) and the benefits (e.g., bumper crops) of food production.

Founded in 2013, Bring It is hardly the first CSA in Memphis. Outfits like Whitton Farms and Downing Hollow Farm have been serving up weekly bags of green goodness for years. What sets Bring It apart is the charitable work that is built into its business model. Through its partnerships with organizations like the Hyde Family Foundations and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Bring It is taking fresh veggies into Memphis’s food deserts--low-income communities without access to healthy, affordable food.

Noah Campbell is the director of the Memphis Center for Food and Faith, the faith-based nonprofit that incubated Bring It. The two nonprofits became formally independent on January 1.

"It was very important to us," says Campbell, "that our CSA serve not just the top 10 percent of Memphians. That was always a part of our concept, working to secure access to fresh and healthy food for low-income families."

"Eating," he adds, "is an agricultural act. It connects us to the land. And we can either participate in that process actively and mindfully, or we can participate passively and ignorantly. It's our choice."

The USDA defines a food desert as a census tract where more than a third of residents live more than a mile from a grocery store. Research indicates that people living in food deserts experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and even premature death.

Nationally about 7 percent of the population live in food deserts, but in Memphis that figure is much higher. Among the city's 77 low-income census tracts, only 7 have access to a full-service supermarket. A 2010 Gallup poll ranked Memphis as the most food-insecure major city in America, with 26 percent of residents saying that at some time in the past 12 months they couldn't afford to buy food for their families.

Bring It is addressing the problem of food deserts in two ways. The first is called a "Pay It Forward" CSA share. Under this model, a more well-off family can sponsor a weekly bag of veggies for a low-income family. The nonprofit also works directly with food pantries around the city, delivering farm-fresh produce directly to organizations like the Grace St. Luke's Food Pantry.

"Most of the time," says Campbell, "when people get food from a food pantry, it comes in a box or a can. And that's a good start. Hungry people need calories. But moving to a healthier form of hunger relief means expanding that offering to include fresh fruits and vegetables, ideally from local farms."

"Really," continues Campbell, "this is about the health of the community. The health of our soil, the health of our neighborhoods. We want to see Memphis become a healthier place to live for all Memphians, not just the wealthy and well-connected."

Bring It sells two levels of subscriptions for its CSA: The Classic and The Deluxe. The Classic ($20/week) is designed for couples, while the Deluxe ($35/week) is sized for families. Highlights from this week's bag include new potatoes from Ly Vu Produce in Bolivar, Tenn., and garlic scapes from Downing Hollow Farms in Olivehill, Tenn.

Wait, what? Garlic scapes? Back in the basement of Germantown Methodist, Greene takes out a plastic bag and empties it on the table. There in front of him are five or six bright green curlicues: exotic, spiral-shaped stems that terminate in what look like flower buds.

"It's the top of the garlic plant," explains Greene, nibbling on a stem. "It's the same garlicky flavor, but greener and milder. Great for pesto, or just throw them on the grill."

As manager, Greene is responsible for filling the approximately 150 brown paper bags that go out to customers each week. It's a demanding process that begins about ten days before each pickup.

At that time, Greene calls each farm to find out what's ready. He then places orders--for 60 bunches of kale, say, or 120 pounds of summer squash--and arranges to have the produce delivered to Memphis. But things don't really heat up until Tuesday--pick-up day--when Greene and his volunteers must clean the produce, weigh it and pack it.

"It's actually kind of like show biz," says Greene. "We've gotta make this stuff look good. There's a deadline. And when two o'clock rolls around, whether we're ready or not, it's showtime."

Bring It's CSA runs from mid-May through late October. Because of overwhelming interest, the organization has stopped selling new CSA shares. But Greene says that over the next few months he plans to expand the scale of his operation, possibly to as many as 300 subscriptions. For that reason, he urges interested parties to sign up for the wait-list on Bring It's website.
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