Food equity advocates survey often overlooked public housing communities about their unique food needs and wants

When Alfred Shirley was a kid, his mom gave him some sound advice: If someone’s knocking at the door and they don’t look familiar, don’t answer — especially if they’re knocking with one hand and holding a clipboard in the other.

Shirley has long heeded his mother’s guidance, and he heard it anew when he recently found himself on the other side of the door, knocking with one hand while holding a clipboard in the other, surveying members of two of Charlottesville’s oft-overlooked public housing communities about their food needs and wants.

What Shirley and his fellow surveyors learned was that the members of the Riverside and Madison Avenue communities want and need more access to healthy and nutritious foods, and they want to be able to get it for themselves.

They also learned that oftentimes, the method of learning such information is just as important as the information itself. The survey was part of the “Setting a Place at the Table for Harvest” campaign run by the Cultivate Charlottesville community advocates program. Shirley, who is Cultivate Charlottesville’s youth leadership and food justice coordinator, worked alongside Food Justice Network community advocate lead Tamara Wright and community advocates Michele Gibson and Rosia Parker to create, conduct and reflect upon the survey.

The group was charged with thinking of a way to enrich a local community, what Cultivate Charlottesville could learn from that community and, in turn, what that community could learn from Cultivate, said Gibson as she sat in the shade of the Riverside playground with Shirley and Cultivate’s outreach and resource program director Aleen Carey.

“We really had to ask ourselves who do we need to support? Doing a survey seemed like the most likely thing, because we had to find out what their needs were first” in order to understand how Cultivate could use its resources to help them “develop as a community” because food and community are often very closely tied, Gibson said.

Many local communities benefit from Cultivate Charlottesville’s programs — from the free, fresh and organic produce offered at on-site market days to learning how to grow and prepare one’s own food. But there are many communities that Cultivate hasn’t quite reached yet, said Carey, and that became particularly evident when Cultivate helped provide city schoolchildren with meals throughout the first year of the pandemic.

Each weekday, school buses would make their rounds stocked with breakfasts and lunches for each child on their routes — for many children in the city, where 1 in 6 residents was food insecure before the pandemic, and nearly 1 in 4 residents lives at or below the federal poverty line, school meals were their only reliable ones. Cultivate, which helps run a community garden at each school in town, assisted with the program a few times, and would give away any meals that were left over after the routes were completed.

People at the stops along the routes started asking where Cultivate brought the extras and whether they ever brought them to Riverside and Madison Avenue, whose communities are often overlooked because they are smaller and less known than public housing communities like Westhaven, Crescent Halls and Sixth Street.

Aleen Carey, outreach and resource coordinator for Cultivate Charlottesville, discusses what the group learned from the community advocates’ surveys in the Riverside and Madison Avenue communities. Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

“That was something we heard from community members: This is another place you need to go. This is another place where you should be checking in with people to see what their needs are,” said Carey.

Hence the survey.

Shirley, Gibson and Carey all noted that it’s important not to assume anything about a neighborhood or a community that is not your own; you must get to know those folks and get to know them responsibly. “We had a lot of discussion on how to come into a community without making others feel othered,” said Shirley, who noted that he’d done market days at Riverside and recognized the three children playing in the playground from those market days but didn’t know their names or anything about them.

That’s why it’s crucial to truly listen when asking folks what they need and what they want, said Carey. “We can’t just do something because we think it makes sense. That’s not only a waste, it doesn’t meet the needs of the community. We have to have the mindset of making sure we ask first, go in with an open mind, be willing to listen and hear what people are saying and value and treat people like they’re the experts that they are.”

“And when you do that,” added Shirley, “you approach a community with their safety in mind.”

They were even prepared to step aside if that’s what the communities wanted, said Shirley. “You cannot force a community to want to receive what you’re willing to give,” a potentially damaging mistake that many advocates and philanthropists unintentionally make.

Eager to avoid making that mistake, the group announced its arrival beforehand, and created and distributed flyers with the dates and times residents of Riverside and Madison Avenue could expect to see Gibson, Shirley, Wright and Parker walking and knocking.

“If people saw the flyer, they knew when to expect us,” said Shirley. They came up with an eight-question survey then split up to go door-to-door, offering a $15 gift card to Kroger for anyone who would answer the survey. And if folks were willing to give insight beyond the survey, Cultivate paid them for that insight, said Shirley. It was their way of showing that they were there to ask, “What do you want? What do you need?” and to show their gratitude for the answers given. That way, Shirley said, “we’re not exploiting people.”

The community advocates are paid for their time, as well.

Shirley, Gibson, Carey and the rest of the Cultivate group are still reflecting on what they learned in the surveys themselves, but some of that information isn’t just consistent, it’s obvious.

The first question asked, How could Cultivate Charlottesville benefit you? “Everyone felt that it could,” said Gibson, a lifelong resident of 10th and Page who was involved with food justice and equity — by gardening and sharing her yield with her neighbors and friends — long before she joined the community advocates program and learned what food justice and food equity are.

Most of the people surveyed knew about the school gardens and the community gardens, but not everyone knew where they were or that they could go in and take what they needed. The group brought them up to speed on all of that, said Gibson.

Everyone surveyed wanted to be part of receiving the organic produce from the community gardens, said Gibson, and many respondents also expressed a desire for recipes, to learn about ways to prepare the produce that was available to them so that they could provide tasty meals for themselves and their families.

“A huge piece of gaining access to foods is letting people know that they are welcome, that they do have access,” said Shirley, “especially to a community that has felt like they have not had that access before. What good are the [gardens] if people don’t know how to access them?”

Or to cook what they choose from those gardens, added Gibson. It’s cliché, but having access to nutritious and delicious food feeds not just the body, but the soul. Shirley recalled that one person who answered the survey talked about their terminal cancer, how they would love to have that access because if they knew they could have good food, they would know they were doing what they could to keep themselves alive and that would put their mind at ease.

Michele Gibson, a lifelong resident of the 10th and Page neighborhood and a community advocate with Cultivate Charlottesville, discusses her work in the Riverview community playground, near Woolen Mills. Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Ensuring that access looks like a lot of different things.

It looks like proximity to grocery stores, something Gibson feels particularly passionate about. Sitting in the Riverside playground, with a view of a quiet street dotted with public housing apartments on one side and newly renovated, ultra-modern single-family homes on the other, Gibson, Shirley and Carey ruminate about the location of the closest grocery store. “It’s far,” said Gibson, who can remember when there were four or five groceries in the city, including Inge’s Store in Vinegar Hill, a majority Black neighborhood razed by the city in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal. The building that housed Inge’s, which closed in 1979, is now the Tavern & Grocery restaurant and bar on West Main Street.

“I really believe that the city could do more to promote getting a good grocery store chain in the city,” said Gibson, noting that Cultivate Charlottesville is also advocating for more bus routes in more parts of the city to better serve its riders.

For instance, Trader Joe’s and Aldi, both located on U.S. 29, tout good food at low prices — Shirley recently bought a $ carton of eggs at the latter — but that’s a long and sometimes complicated (though currently free) trip for anyone without a car.

Imagine taking the bus — or, more likely, buses — to and from the grocery store in 90-something degree heat. Anything frozen, like ice cream or tater tots, is not an option since it’d melt before the trip ends. Milk would warm. Fresh meat, fish, or cheese might perish. Orange juice concentrate, which is the more economical of the orange juice options, would melt and seep right through its cardboard tube, all over the other groceries, the bag, clothing, bus seats.

And one can only purchase as much as they can carry, which isn’t all that much. That, in turn, means more grocery runs, which means more time, which not everyone — especially someone of low wealth who may be working two or three jobs just to get by — has to spare, even for something as important as healthy food.

“It goes back to those systems and structures that are in place,” said Gibson.

So, the market days, where people can come out and select their own produce from what Cultivate has grown in its community gardens, are a good start. Gibson loves seeing all the folks who come out on market days, meeting them and establishing connections in communities all over town. “There’s such a diverse reception of those market days,” she said. At some sites, it’s older generations like her own, who are familiar with the produce and love cooking with them. At others, it’s young children coming out to scout resources for their families, either letting the adults know what’s out there or making the selections themselves.

“You see the people come out and they keep coming. The plan is to come with a full bin and leave with an empty one. Generally, that happens,” said Gibson.

Market days help meet the urgent need, said Shirley, but longer-term solutions must be put in place.

And those usually aren’t easy. For instance, the Riverside community wants a garden, but that might not be possible, said Shirley. Cultivate has conducted some sun studies, has assessed the land, the soil, and they’re not sure how successful a garden would be on that land, which is quite shaded (something other public housing communities in town do not have). Would they be able to work with the land, or would they have to work against it? Would the yield be worth the effort? All of those things complexify what seems to be a simple solution: A garden.

While preparing a new garden, which takes time they also can’t lose sight of the immediate needs as well. It takes a long time for a pepper to grow, noted Shirley, and even longer to ensure the earth is up to the task.

And the people have to be up to it, too, and that takes connection and trust. By the end of the interview, the three children who Shirley recognized from the market days had started talking with the adults on the playground, gesturing at us to watch them jump over water bottles, pop wheelies on their bicycles or scratch the ears of a Paw Patrol stuffed animal. Shirley went to his car and brought out sheets of stickers for the kids, who eagerly shared them with everyone in the circle. Eventually, they introduced themselves via a set of alphabet stickers and taught us how to say “cat” — pronounced “pisho” — in Pashto, their language.

This time, no one had to knock on a door, there was no clipboard in sight. The Cultivate folks were present, ears and minds open, to whatever the neighborhood had to tell them. It was a hot morning, and Shirley reminded them to drink water, asked if they were able to have lunch. They were.

As Gibson and Shirley said goodbye to the children, wished them well in the new school year and walked toward their cars, they nodded their heads and smiled.

“That’s it right there,” said Gibson.“That’s it,” echoed Shirley. “There it is.”