How One Community Is Changing Its Food Landscape, Block by Block, with Wholesome Wave

This three-part series on food deserts is brought to you by GOOD with the support of Naked Juice

The Woodlawn section of Chicago’s South Side is not technically one of the city’s 23 neighborhoods designated as a food desert. However, those who live in the neighborhood, where more than 30 percent of households live below the poverty level, will tell you a different story: the grocery stores that are within walking distance do not have fresh fruits and vegetables.The few that do may not be affordable, and it’s just as difficult to get healthy produce as it is in South Side neighborhoods, which are officially designated food deserts by the USDA. “My husband and I had been living in the neighborhood for 20 years, and we couldn’t find any stores that carried fresh produce to shop at,” says Connie Spreen, executive director of Experimental Station, a cultural community group in the neighborhood.

The dearth of quality produce and a lack of knowledge on healthy eating in the community led Spreen to open the 61st Street Farmers Market in 2008 to bring organic, sustainably-produced foods into the neighborhood through Experimental Station. But the market was met with some skepticism. “I was asked by reporters, ‘How do you reconcile selling organic produce at a high price tag and wanting to serve the low-income community?’ I justified it on educational grounds—that we were supplementing it with chef demos, composting education, in-school programming, farm visits—but we were struggling with the moral dilemma that first year,” says Spreen.

The answer? A helping hand from Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit which aims to improve affordability and access to fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables in underserved communities. Founded by chef Michel Nischan, former USDA Undersecretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher, and the late food writer and historian Michael Batterberry, Wholesome Wave helps organizations such as the 61st Street Farmers Market navigate the complex food system and facilitate change where it’s needed the most. Experimental Station and Wholesome Wave connected in September 2009, and within two weeks, the 61st Street Farmers Market had implemented Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP), which matches the value of benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), when used toward the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We saw the impact of the program immediately,” Spreen says. “People come up to us all the time and say, ‘This is a lifesaver for me.’” Adds Nischan, “This program demonstrates that if we address affordability, people in underserved communities want—and do—feed their families better food.” An indication of its success may be that the program was implemented at farmers markets throughout Chicago: since the launch of DVCP at the 61st Street Farmers Market, Experimental Station has shepherded the acceptance of LINK Cards (the state’s food assistance program), at 41 other farmers markets in the city so that people may use the cards for DVCP.

In addition to the DVCP, which is currently in 26 states, Wholesome Wave oversees two other programs. For the Fruits and Vegetables Prescription Program (FVRx), a doctor writes a “prescription” for a person at risk of diet related diseases such as diabetes to redeem for locally grown produce valued at $1 per day, per family member; the participants redeem the prescription at participating farmers markets at least every two weeks for 4 to 6 months. In the past two years, the results from the studies, although not controlled, have been significant, with 38.1 percent of participants dropping BMI in 2011, and 37.8 percent of child participants decreasing BMI in 2012. “It’s pretty remarkable that we had two years in a row with almost identical drops in BMI in populations that were expected to raise BMI. We can make a direct correlation between increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and health,” says Nischan.

The third program, Healthy Food Commerce Investments, aims to channel funding to health-minded, mission-driven businesses and organizations that need it the most. “The food system right now is robotized and the goal of highly processed food companies is to return profit for their shareholders by keeping labor costs as low as possible,” explains Nischan. “What we would like to see is money and tax dollars that are already in the system going to smaller businesses that could actually get healthier foods into corner stores, grade-school cafeterias, and hospitals, to those who are really changing the food system.” A good example of an HFCI project is Red’s Best in Boston, which distributes seafood to five farmers markets in the city at a price that gives the fishermen a fair wage. It’s all part of Wholesome Wave’s mission of targeting existing monies so “that they have greater effects,” says Nischan.

And demonstrably so: The farmers markets in Illinois, including the 61st Street Farmers Market in the Woodlawn section of Chicago, have seen marked increase in sales due to the DVCP and LINK Up programs. In 2012, the markets generated $155,604 in SNAP and $71,396 in DVCP sales, totaling $227,000 spent on locally grown farm fresh foods. "LINK Up Illinois markets generate the great majority of farmers markets in our state," explains Spreen.

In its fifth year, the 61st Street Farmers Market is going strong, but other challenges lie ahead for Spreen, such as expanding the LINK Up Illinois program and working with Wholesome Wave to figure out next steps. She is exhausted but undeterred. “I’ve realized that with the particular traits I have, I can do quite a bit to change the way things work in my world. Helping my neighbors, my fellow-Chicagoans and Illinoisans gain access to affordable, healthy food is something I can do,” she says.

This is the third of three in a series on food deserts. Take a look at the first and second.

First image courtesy of Experimental Station, second image via Flickr (cc) user Star5112

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