Nonprofit Org Creates Urban Oasis in Miami Where All Have Access to Locally Grown Food
October 31, 2016 | Vanessa Caceres
Whether it’s an affluent person who can afford to spend money on gourmet produce, or a person of limited means who wants to eat better, both are united in their quest for healthier food. That’s part of the driving force behind the Urban Oasis Project, which Art Friedrich founded in 2009 to make healthy, local food more accessible in Miami, FL.
Although Miami is a big city located in the agriculture-rich state of Florida, Friedrich found when he moved there that the sustainable food scene—one that would also help those who are lower income—was small. “It’s more based on image here, not reality and a nitty-gritty work ethic,” he says. This contrasted with Friedrich’s experience of living in New England and St. Louis, where sustainable farming is more common.
An interest in bringing healthier food to so-called food deserts and a passion for social justice led Friedrich to start the Urban Oasis Project. “The communities wanted fresh produce,” Friedrich said. When the nonprofit first started, it helped to bring gardens and farmers’ markets to areas such as Miami’s Liberty City. The folks at Urban Oasis aggregated from area farms, used homegrown produce, and gleaned from available fruit trees, all with the goal of providing affordable healthy food.
The Urban Oasis Project also started Verde Community Farm and Market in the city of Homestead with partner Carrfour Supportive Housing. Verde is located in a community with permanent assisted housing, geared toward those who were once homeless. Many who live there do not have cars, making access to fresh food more difficult. Those who live in the community work at Verde Farms. “It’s been a great way to provide jobs, education, and get people to eat local food,” Friedrich says.
Verde Farms also has a market to sell its produce, a commercial kitchen, an event venue, and a CSA. Urban Oasis recently handed over the management reins of Verde Farms to the housing authority. Friedrich is proud of the organization’s work with Verde Farms but adds that it still needs to see about long-term viability. “You’re working with a challenging population that needs more training sometimes,” he says. If Verde Farms can one day become an agritourism destination, that would help sustain it in the long-term, he believes.
Within its farmers’ market realm, there are some markets fully managed by Urban Oasis—such as the Upper Eastside Farmers’ Market at Legion Park—while there are others where the group maintains booths. The markets operated by Urban Oasis also accept SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. In fact, through a grant program, users of SNAP can double their benefits when they buy produce grown in the state.
“Our farmers’ markets are very mixed income,” he says. “There are people who drive fancy cars next to someone who uses food stamps.” Ultimately, Urban Oasis helps to bring products directly from farmers—versus items purchased at a supermarket and resold—to all of their customers.
The farmers’ market customers of limited means are grateful for the help they’ve received from Urban Oasis. “Some had a better income before their current situation, and they can’t afford certain things anymore. Some of these folks appreciate that they can continue to eat healthy,” Friedrich says.
Items sold at the markets include a mix that varies seasonally and is grown by local and regional growers. For instance, the summer includes sales of tropical fruits and tropical greens. Urban Oasis will also aggregate from around the state. Although they won’t sell items not typically grown in Florida, such as apples, the organization will sometimes buy items grown in Florida from out-of-state sources. However, anything sold at Urban Oasis markets is labeled with its source. For example, avocadoes might be labeled as coming from a certain sustainably grown farm in Homestead. “That builds up the trust of the customer,” he says. “They know we’re passing on what we know.” It’s also part of an effort to educate customers that not everything grows in Florida.
Now that Verde Gardens is not managed by Urban Oasis, the organization is stepping back to strategize on other plans that would benefit Miami residents. Although many have asked for more farmers markets, this is a hard task without enough farmers—a common problem, ironically, in ag-heavy Florida. Other ideas include looking into a centralized city market or a local foods app. Friedrich and the three-person board at Urban Oasis Project were planning to meet soon to set up next steps.