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Community Garden Network with Attendant Veggie Mobile Serves ‘Foodies in Food Deserts’

October 29, 2012 |

Standing in front of Ten Eyck Apartments, a 101-unit high-rise apartment building in downtown Schenectady, New York, can be found the Veggie Mobile, a vegetable stand on wheels.

Today, like most days, it is serving fresh produce for low-income individuals and families very much like residents of Ten Eyck, mostly elderly and disabled residents. Today it is raining, but the casual spectator or curious bystander can still see a flourish of activity from volunteers packing vegetables for those that request them.

The Veggie Mobile is one of a pair of mobile farmers markets that make approximately 30 stops a week in the upstate New York cities of Schenectady, Albany, and Rensselaer counties, on Mondays through Saturdays, operated and organized by Capital District Community Gardens, a local Troy nonprofit.

“The Veggie Mobile had a little baby, a mini-version called the Veggie Mobile Sprout,” Community Gardens Marketing Coordinator Katherine Rasmussen said with a laugh. “It has taken on some of the smaller stops, making it possible to weave through difficult traffic conditions, where the bigger Veggie Mobile has trouble parking in smaller parking lots and cramped one-way streets.”

Capital District Community Gardens’ mission is to provide low-income urban centers, or as Rasumssen termed food deserts, with access to fresh vegetables.

Rasmussen said some neighborhoods, due to zoning restrictions, do not have supermarkets for the local communities to access fresh food.

“Rather than trying to get things built, we have a temporary solution of trucking the food in,” she said.

Rasmussen said people are very eager to try new things and become very enthusiastic after they try new food.

“There is this stereotype that low-income families don’t have an interest in fresh food and we find that it isn’t true. They just simply don’t have access to it,” she said. “One of our staff members put it the best way by saying ‘we’re serving foodies in the food desert’.”

Volunteers working one of the Capital District Community Gardens. Photo: Capital District Community Gardens.

While individual and corporate sponsors help Capital District Community Gardens financially, with $62,511 and $43,595 as of 2011 respectively, (a health maintenance organization, Capital District Physicians Health Plan (CDPHP) sponsors the veggie mobile), the lion’s share (46 percent) of the nonprofit’s income comes from government grants, or $489,258 in 2011 alone.

Rasmussen said however that the nonprofit’s volunteers really make it possible to serve in the food deserts.

“Some have stayed with us for as long as 20 years. They really help us reduce costs,” Rasmussen said.

Capital District Community Gardens all started in 1975 with a simple community garden in Troy, a project created by lawn mower manufacturer Troy-Bilt. Over the years, it has grown to seven programs with an annual income of over $1 million and total assets of $916,949 (2011) including land, equipment, and vehicles.

Capital District Community Gardens is working towards cornering the market by investing in an agricultural hub, or what the nonprofit calls the Urban Grow Center, a $2 million building renovation project in downtown Troy which will house a future education center.

How the nonprofit completes its mission is by managing not only the Veggie Mobile program, but six additional programs: Community Gardens, The Produce Project, Healthy Convenience Store Initiative, Squash Hunger, Taste Good Series, and Urban Greening. The programs are all intended to nourish the undernourished by providing access, education, and training.

For instance, the Squash Hunger program is a food donation initiative that relies on volunteers to deliver produce that gardeners, grocery store shoppers, and farmers donate to local food pantries and shelters.

The Taste Good series is a six-week nutrition education program, which helps pre-K through 2nd grade children to develop healthy lifestyles taught by garden educators. And through urban greening, low-income urban areas are improved aesthetically and are more energy-efficient by planting trees and public landscaping.

Community Gardens Produce Project is an urban farm in Troy, New York which offers stipends, school credit, and a harvest share to at-risk youth from Troy High School in exchange for tending crops and selling them at local farmers markets.

Troy High School students Johnathan Brown, David Venson, and Taliah Tillman were busy tending crops at the Produce Project on this drenching rainy day.

“It is good experience and is my first real job,” Brown, just 17, said.

Venson and Tillman, both 16, agreed.

“We get to learn about gardening,” Tillman said. “Like, what types of food to plant and that if you plant carrots and tomatoes together, it helps to keep the insects away.”

Another program is the Healthy Convenience Store Initiative which provides ten urban convenience stores in the Capital District with fresh food which goes to nourishing more than 13,000 inner-city residents with over 10 tons of fresh produce.

According to Rasmussen, if someone misses the Veggie Mobile in their neighborhood, the program partners with local corner stores that often sell unhealthy snacks with fresh food twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

She explained that little mini refrigerators are installed in these stores and stocked with produce twice a week.

“I ran into a woman who was shopping in one,” Rasmussen said. “She said ‘oh, yeah! The veggie mobile, I went there one day, they really got me turned onto salads, I’m so excited because I have a store right here in my neighborhood that I can get all the ingredients I can get all the time’.”

“Another thing that we have been doing is trying to get people who are suffering from illnesses to have more fresh food in their diet,” she said.

The Veggie Rx program attempts to do just that; Capital District Community Gardens have partnered with local health facilities where staff hands out veggie coupon books worth $7 for hypertensive and diabetic patients which can be redeemed at the Veggie mobiles.

“That is why it is so important,” Rasmussen explained. “Residents in neighborhoods that don’t have access to healthy food are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other nutrition related illnesses.”

Capital District Community Gardens, as the name suggests, also operates urban community gardens throughout the three counties and has expanded into a fourth with a community garden within a mobile home community in southern Saratoga County. Rasmussen said a community garden plot can typically yield $1500 worth of groceries in one season.

Although the organization is expanding their community garden program, with a goal of opening another garden in Saratoga County by 2013, the program does come with some risks.

“Some of the risk is holding on to the land,” Rasmussen said. “Landlords are able to donate some of their land for a certain number of years, and then they need to develop the land for some reason. It is really disheartening when that happens because over the years the soil becomes so rich from all of the crops growing there; so to uproot a garden and move it somewhere else, you are losing many of the nutrients.”

“It is very important not to have chemicals in the soil, so we provide education classes for our gardeners so they learn composting techniques and crop rotation,” Rasmussen said.

“Some of our programs are meant for everyone and we ask anyone to be involved with any of the programs, but the Veggie Mobile is certainly meant to service low income neighborhoods,” she said. “Community Gardens is for anyone interested in growing their own food.”

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