Urban garden’s reach grows deeper into city’s ‘food deserts’

Cindy Huang | 3/26/2015, 10:45 a.m. | Updated on 3/26/2015, 10:45 a.m.
An urban garden that started out selling fresh produce and fruit at discount to two Richmond convenience stores will grow ...
Tricycle Gardens project manager Claire Sadeghzadeh delivers fresh apples and other produce to Song’s Market in the East End. Photo by Sandra Sellars

An urban garden that started out selling fresh produce and fruit at discount to two Richmond convenience stores will grow to serve 13 stores by this summer.

But Tricycle Gardens wants to be more than a fresh food provider for Richmond’s food desert pockets. The nonprofit farm wants to be a magnet for grocery stores and farms in those pockets by highlighting the demand for fresh foods.

“We want to show there’s a vibrant food community,” said Tricycle Gardens project manager Claire Sadeghzadeh.

The single-acre farm at 9th and Bainbridge streets in Richmond’s South Side sells 70 to 140 pounds of kale, spinach, collard greens and other vegetables every week to nine stores across the city, including Song’s Market in the East End.

Since the program began in 2013, the farm has delivered almost 3,000 pounds of fresh food to Richmond food deserts, said Ms. Sadeghzadeh. Four new stores are expected to be added by June on North Side, South Side and the East End.

Food deserts are defined as pockets of the city where fresh, healthy eating options are scarce.

“We try to be more of a grocery store than a convenience store,” said Xavier Cibes, owner of Song’s Market at 1400 Mechanicsville Turnpike.

Mr. Cibes said the lack of fresh food in the area is partly because of a “misunderstanding” between store owners and customers. Store owners are waiting for an increase in demand for fresh food to sell it, he said, but people in the area won’t ask for vegetables if they don’t see it as a local option.

The cycle of supply and demand for junk food has to break on both ends.

“It’s not easy to break the old patterns. We think it will take awhile,” he said.

Douglas Rowlett, who was shopping at the market, wants more fresh food available to residents of the city’s East End. But he said there’s a “get it and go” and “quick fix” attitude toward food in many of Richmond’s economically depressed neighborhoods.

With tight budgets, some residents are more focused on staying full than staying healthy, he explained.

About 20 percent of Richmond residents don’t have access to nutritional food due to a lack of local options and limited transportation to grocery stores, according to a 2010 study by the nonprofit Feeding America.

A 2013 report by Richmond’s Food Policy Task Force found that people living in the city’s food deserts are nutrition-starved because local convenience stores sell highly processed, low-nutrient foods. The report said the lack of healthy food options leads to diet-related problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.

“Many Richmonders are going hungry — if not in quantity of available food, then in quality of food with sufficient nutritional value to keep them healthy,” the report stated.

Danny Avula, deputy director of the Richmond City Health District, said that cities like Philadelphia and New York have many local stores with fresh food, which “changes the landscape of what food is available and, over time, that changes the culture of food.”

Dr. Avula said to improve public health, communities have to both change the environment by increasing the fresh food options and encouraging people to choose fresh food.

“Just because you put it in there doesn’t mean people will buy it,” Dr. Avula said.

He said people struggling with poverty may not have the resources to find and buy fresh food.

“It’s lower priority than just getting some food on the table,” Dr. Avula said. “We need to help change the culture, help people think about what they’re eating with long-term goals.”

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which is receiving about $56,000 this fiscal year from local and state funds, also includes in-store tastings to win over the taste buds of local residents, said Ms. Sadeghzadeh.

She said she convinces local store owners to buy fresh foods from the farm by pointing out the successes of participating stores.

She also buys back any fresh food left over by the end of the week. That amount is diminishing to about 10 pounds a week collectively from all the participating stores, she said.

In 2013, the program received about $39,000 in state and local government funds to expand to more stores.

Mr. Cibes says he sees an increased interest in fresh food by shoppers in his store, but he still struggles to get people to notice those offerings.

Fresh foods fill two refrigerator cases in his market. On a recent week, the one in the front of the store showcased cabbages, radishes, squash and apples. The other had white onions, tomatoes and green peppers.

“Every week, someone says, ‘Oh, you carry produce,’ ” Mr. Cibes said.

His noontime shoppers buy sodas, chips and packaged pastries, largely ignoring the cabbage, radish, spaghetti squash and apples at the front of the store. Mr. Cibes said his fresh foods are sold mostly around dinnertime to young mothers who are going home to cook.

Roosevelt Hicks, 47, said he goes to Song’s Market every day because it’s around the corner from his home. He said his wife regularly purchases vegetables there for the family’s dinners.

Crystal Witcher, a Church Hill resident, said she learned about the health risk of eating junk food through Facebook posts and news reports. She buys fresh foods from Song’s Market to make sure her three kids eat vegetables every day.

But she said breaking bad habits can be difficult.

“I’m addicted to soda,” she said sheepishly.