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American Almanac
Journal of Children & Poverty


Grass Roots

By Lee Erica Elder

Innovative Food Education Programs Empower Communities to Take Nutrition Into Their Own Hands

A thankful family leaves the Garden on the Go stand in Indianapolis with bags of fresh produce. Garden on the Go offers produce that is of higher quality than what is found in local grocery stores, so it stays fresh for a longer period of time, enabling families to maximize the money they spend on food.

Spring 2012

The program also preps parents for moves into transitional and permanent housing, accompanying them to local grocery stores to practice reading labels to make healthier choices and shopping the perimeter of the store for fresher options. “Operation CHOICES empowers those living in shelter and experiencing feelings of hopelessness, to recognize opportunities to gain control over their lives by making choices to improve their health,” says Berrios.

Indiana has the 15th-highest obesity rate in the nation, but in just under a year, a groundbreaking partnership between Indiana University Health and the Green Bean Delivery Program has created hope for significant change. The first of its kind between healthcare and nonprofit organizations, Garden on the Go brings fresh, healthy, and affordable produce into food deserts in the Marion County area. “In our community, only about 25% of residents consume produce on a regular basis—that’s just not enough,” says Lisa Cole, manager of Indianapolis community outreach for Indiana University Health. The program launched in May of 2011, and results are already impressive—7,300 point-of-sales transactions in seven months. “It’s a regular route, Wednesday– Saturday, 16 stops per week. Ninety percent of participants say it has increased the amount of produce they eat,” says Cole. “Prior to Garden on the Go, one of our customers, a 44-year woman, both diabetic and a double amputee, was maybe able to get produce on a monthly basis. Now she can access produce on a weekly basis.” Says Lincoln Saunders, director of Garden on the Go, “If you’re in a motorized scooter or wheelchair, the grocery store that is two blocks away might as well be two miles away.” With half of the stops serving seniors, Garden on the Go’s efforts have already caught the attention of the Partnership on Aging. “Senior hunger is a huge issue,” says Cole.

Nourishing NYC distributes thousands of pounds of free produce to New York City residents who otherwise would not be able to afford nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Garden on the Go’s produce is beautiful and affordable. “This is very different from what they might find at a convenience store or box store,” says Cole. “The quality is so high that customers can maximize their food dollars better because it lasts longer.” The program was advised to charge for produce to connect customers with the solutions to their health issues and the importance of budgeting food dollars. At press time, about $4.95 bought a pound of green beans, a pound of bananas, three pounds of potatoes, a couple of apples, and a head of lettuce—this number was closer to $7.00 at the start of the program. Customers stock up on green peppers, priced at just 40 cents each, stretching them to create family- and budget-friendly meals such as stuffed peppers. “We think about what we carry on the truck as a great opportunity to deal with chronic health issues that we are trying to prevent or cope with,” says Saunders. “One gentleman said it was the best-looking produce since his own farm he grew up on as a child.”

Community food education programs are growing in number, as a critical response to unprecedented rates of poverty, obesity, malnutrition, and chronic disease in the United States. These movements bring much-needed attention to issues of homelessness and poverty, offer the possibility for increased health and longevity, and may even move people out of generational poverty. If programs continue to address the variety of issues created by food insecurity, and place the power of natural health in the hands of communities, change is possible. “I think these programs have the power to create changes in partnership with policy changes across the country related to food economics, community health, school foods, and urban agriculture,” says Bloom.

Corporate and media attention to these issues is at an all-time high. In 2011, Sesame Street got in on the act, with a Walmart-sponsored special, Growing Hope Against Hunger, introducing an impoverished puppet, Lily, whose family struggles with food insecurity.

“More not-for-profits should look for corporate entities to partner with,” says Cole. “If everybody can bring something to the table, that’s reasonable and sustainable over time. You have to have these efforts crossing over each other,” she says. “We have a responsibility to deal with the health of our community. The time is right for this kind of thing. Resistance that we’ve seen is, ‘What kind of data can you share with us?’ You don’t see changes overnight, but if you wait, how many trucks could have been started? This is a national problem, and it’s a complicated problem. To see the faces of these individuals that come off a truck with fresh produce loaded in their bags in a way they haven’t been able to before, I can’t translate that into data—but, if we come every week, it is going to make a difference.”

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