By Jennifer Lehman
Development and Communications Coordinator
Every Thursday afternoon, the bell rings at the Mace Street doorway. With reusable grocery bags in hand, Garry Oldham enters the Franciscan Center and walks over to the Emergency Food Pantry where he receives a large share of locally grown, fresh produce.
“With the prices today of food, it’s almost foolish not to come to a place like this,” Gary said, explaining that four years ago he received the same amount of food stamps that he does today. Only, back then they sustained him for a full month.
“Now, I use them up in two weeks,” he said.
Gary is one of 30 people who qualified to take part in the Franciscan Center’s Fresh Harvest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Project, which provides economically disadvantaged Baltimore City residents a free CSA share every week from May through November. A CSA share includes a variety of vegetables that change weekly depending on the time of year. During the past several months, participants received items such as kale, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans and onions.
“I’m so grateful for it,” Gary said, adding that without this project he could not afford to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables.
Wrapping up its second year, the Fresh Harvest CSA Project is beneficial not only to the people it serves, but also to the Franciscan Center. The project is designed to gather information from its participants about their eating habits and food preferences. Participants are given a preliminary and post survey that focuses on their current eating habits, their definition of healthy foods, and their lifestyle. When they pick up their weekly CSA shares, they are also given a brief survey about the types of produce they are receiving.
“On the surface, this program is about giving high quality produce to individuals and families that need it on a regular basis,” said Christian Metzger, Executive Director of the Franciscan Center. “But what it’s really about, is seeing if the CSA model could address hunger and potentially be a solution to food deserts in Baltimore.”
By simply asking people about their food preferences, Christian explained, it could provide valuable information to owners of urban farms or local corner stores about the types of produce that are in demand in under-served neighborhoods.
That, however, is more of a big picture goal. For the time being, the Center aims to provide its participants with meaningful educational opportunities as well as inspiration to taste new and unfamiliar produce.
“I use to give away eggplant,” laughed Paulette Lipscomb, a second-year participant who learned about the project at the end of its first year. “I didn’t know nothing about eggplant, but now I know something.”
Paulette lives in a food desert and says the closest grocery store is more than a mile away from her home. She makes the trip to the Franciscan Center every week because of the access to fresh produce.
“It’s a good idea to come because of the vegetables,” she said. “You don’t get enough vegetables in you and this program made me eat more vegetables.”
While the project setup is similar to last year, much has changed – mostly notably, the retention rate among participants. Last year, 12 people completed the project from start to finish; and this year, the number jumped to 27.
Part of this increase is due to the quality of participants – comprised of people who either completed the full CSA program successfully last year or expressed a sincere interest in eating healthy this year. If a participant missed two pick ups without giving prior notice, they were dismissed from the program. A person on the wait list immediately took their place.
Another major addition to the project included a Client Advisory Board. This group of five individuals, who were successful during the project’s first year, met once a month to discuss ideas for enhancing the program even further.
The advisory board’s input helped to improve the quality of educational opportunities we offered. Every Thursday afternoon during pick up, a specialist spoke on a range of topics that included diabetes, processed foods, budget shopping, meditation, yoga, and sugar intake.
The project would not be possible without funding from the United Way of Central Maryland, and our partners including, University of Maryland
Extension Food Supplement Nutrition Education Program (FSNE), the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and One Straw Farm.