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Turning a Food Desert into an Oasis of Opportunity

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Food deserts are on the rise with more than 23 million Americans living in areas without access to fresh, healthy food. One organization is determined to turn that tide.


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More than 23 million Americans live in “food deserts” without ready access to fresh, healthy food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In these low-income census tracts, there’s often plenty of fast food but few grocery stores. A lack of healthy food is highly correlated with heart disease, diabetes and hypertension in adults and is associated with poor academic performance for kids.

North Omaha, Nebraska is the largest food desert in that state. But there, the founders of No More Empty Pots (NMEP) have created a “food hub.” At its 19,000-square-foot headquarters, NMEP aggregates, stores, processes, markets and distributes locally and regionally produced food. Offerings include a farm-to-table market, classrooms for job training and a shared-use commercial kitchen. In the kid’s kitchen, children can practice hands-on nutrition education and STEM skills using local food. In September, a roof garden will open to teach teens urban farming, as well as a community café. NMEP has also partnered with the YMCA and other groups to install an aquaponics system, where local teens care for, eat and sell leafy greens.

Over five years, the food hub is projected to create nearly $3 million in wages and benefits, and generate 90 percent of the income needed to operate the facility. Nancy Williams, president and CEO of NMEP, explained how NMEP is fostering a healthier community and economic growth.

Rowley: “How did No More Empty Pots start?”

Williams: “We held a food summit in 2010 to bring together local people, organizations and businesses, and started with two initiatives: more support for urban agriculture, and a shared commercial kitchen. We partnered with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in 2011 to facilitate the distribution of local food. The CSA purchases the produce and separates it into shares. We pick it up and distribute it to 16 other locations in neighborhoods considered food deserts. We offer payment plans for people who can’t afford the full upfront cost, and shareholders who qualify for SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program] can use it to pay for their produce share. A lot of people have not eaten local produce before, and this introduces them to a different lifestyle. Even when they are no longer on SNAP, we find families maintain healthy eating habits. The program started out with 15 to 20 farmers and now there are 50 to 60. We also support community gardens in our immediate neighborhood.”

Vegetables.

Photo by Mythja/Shutterstock.com

Rowley: “How do people learn how to prepare the food?”

Williams: “We started doing cooking demonstrations on site the day of pickup at our center, and in libraries and schools — from preschoolers up to teen parents at alternative high schools.”

Rowley: “How does NMEP support job creation?”

Williams: “When you take full advantage of resources in a region to produce more local food, you can employ more people. We partnered with Wells Fargo, which offers a program to help entrepreneurs start and grow [food-related] businesses. People can train in our kitchens to get better jobs. In September our café will open, where seniors can come in and have coffee and buy the food people are making in the kitchens. Residents will learn to manage the coffee shop. The rooftop garden should be finished by September, and we have already talked with partners like Cisco on how to use sensors to track plant growth and growing conditions, to alleviate food waste and ensure a better product. People working in the garden can learn how to use connected devices in food production.”

Rowley: “How did you personally get interested in food systems?”

Williams: “I grew up the oldest of six kids in Louisiana and we grew our own food. My mother believed that everything could be solved through nutrition. I studied horticulture in college and as I had kids of my own, I saw the difference between their development — having access to healthy food — and their peers who didn’t. Access to good food impacts brain development, which will impact how well kids do in school and the educational opportunities they can take advantage of.”

Rowley: “What’s your favorite part of this project?”

Williams: “I love it when people get those ‘aha’ moments, especially kids. Seeing kids drinking a kale smoothie and saying ‘I like kale’ — that’s priceless. When we eat well together, we prosper together.”