In recent years, there has been a concerted push at the local and national levels to make healthy food more widely available, particularly in low-income areas. This is one focus of Food Day, which food groups and advocates celebrated across the U.S Wednesday. But while programs and systems are gradually putting fresh food front and center, changing eating habits can be even more complicated.
Over the last few years, leaders around Kansas City, Kan., have been opening farmers markets, urban gardens and other projects focused on improving overall health and access to food. They see Food Day as a way to recognize the ongoing efforts and draw attention to community needs.
To kick off the occasion, some civic leaders and food advocates met earlier in the week at Juniper Gardens, a 9-acre training farm surrounded by public housing in the northeast part of the city. Mayor Joe Reardon signed a proclamation there endorsing the day.
“You know, my great grandparents on my mom’s side came to Wyandotte County as farmers. And so my mom got to grow up a little bit on the farm in the summers,” Reardon said. “Fast forward to me, and that experience is much more removed and my kids don’t have that connection to farming at all in the same way. And so we have to revisit that, and so we have to orient ourselves again to the importance of that.”
But in a county like this one, where an estimated 32,000 residents live in areas with poor access to a grocery store and fresh produce and where many suffer from chronic diseases that can be linked to poor nutrition, how well is this message catching on?
Reardon said the process has been “organic,” as urban farms like Juniper work to supply fresh produce all over the metro and to the surrounding neighborhoods.
“So it means that the homes that are around here when you open your door now, it’s not a weeded lot that was abandoned,” Reardon said. “There’s a farm, right outside your door, right in the middle of our city
After Reardon and others leave the farm, Judith Smith, an area resident, pointed out the garden plot that she and other families have been cultivating over the last two years.
“We have greens, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, basil,” Smith said, walking through the patch and gesturing at flowering plants. “It’s an edible plant that you can eat. I didn’t think I would eat a flower, but it’s an edible flower.”
Smith said before the farm started up here, local produce - and produce in general - wasn’t a part of her or other friends and families’ mindsets.
“I was eating greasy food, food that wasn’t healthy, from a can,” Smith said. “Now, I won’t eat nothing but salads. Nothing with fat, like fried chicken. None of that.”
Smith said her transformation actually came pretty easily.
“What changed for me was learning how to plant vegetables,” she said. “We went to a farm and I got to see how different people were doing different things. I didn’t know plants were edible. I was like, ‘Ooo, yuck. That’s grass!’ But it’s actually edible vegetables that you can walk up and eat…Once I started doing it [planting vegetables] and tasting it, I liked it.”
Smith is involved with a lot at Juniper Gardens now, from doing cooking demonstrations to working with parents and kids on garden plots. What’s she learned is people really connect with seeing her pick vegetables right on site and then showing how they can be cooked.
“We see people pulling to the side, getting all their ‘What’s this, what’s cooking?’" Smith said. "And we’ll tell them, and say, ‘Don’t say you don’t like it, try it.’"
But drawing a crowd to check out new food isn’t always an easy process.
About five miles south of Juniper Gardens, Eugene Brown wrapped up a farm stand on a recent Sunday morning on the corner of 29th Street and Strong Avenue in Kansas City, Kan. Just a handful of people stopped by.
“It feels like a failing effort today,” Brown said, half-jokingly.
The market Brown operates is a mobile one. He stores local produce, meats and eggs inside a refrigerated truck, and then parks it throughout the metro at set times during the week. The market, now wrapping up its second year, is also part of a program called Beans & Greens, which provides discounts to seniors and food stamp recipients shopping at local farmers markets.
Mario Escobar, a neighborhood volunteer at this location, said the market is a big service.
“We used to have a store here, but it has been several years,” Escobar said. “Basically, you’ll have to go at least two or three miles away to the closest grocery store.”
Escobar said that can be especially hard for elderly people who live around here. There’s also no public transit on weekends. Brown, meanwhile, said he’s learning that finding the right time and place for these markets can be a challenge, even when they’re in a place where they’ve identified a need.
“We look to be a reliable source,” Brown said. “But knowing that the traffic is low, that tells us that somewhere earlier in the week people shopped somewhere else,” whether that be an Aldi’s or Walmart in neighboring Roeland Park, or a nearby convenience store.
Brown said one reason he’s parked at this spot is there’s a big church across the street. When things get slow, he explained while smiling, sometimes he’ll take measures into his own hands.
“Once in a while what we’ll do is we’ll run over to the church and as people come out we’ll kind of hound them, which is kind of bad,” Brown said, laughing. “Because we’re standing there next to the Father, we’re like, ‘You don’t mind if we stand next to you, do you?’”
Even on a slow day Brown is upbeat thanks to recent sales trends.
“The majority of the markets that we had this year all grew in numbers, whether it was the number of transactions, whether it was the number of dollars spent on average by customer, or even the weekly sales,” Brown said. “We saw so much success.”
Brown sees more recurring customers, too. And similar to Smith’s experience at Juniper gardens, Brown said hands-on guidance making a huge difference. Kale is a great example.
“I can’t count the number of customers came though the mobile market this year – if I had to make a broad generalization were between their low 20s and mid 30s – that had no idea what kale was,” Brown said. “And so, it was a long process. It wasn’t an easy sell. Whether it was handing a recipe, following up, trying it. Even in some instances offering some kale. Saying, ‘Take one as a freebee, try it, come back and talk to us about it.’ And once they realized it, then of course it was fantastic.”
The big question, as Brown said, is whether these new experiences and eating habits will stick.