Local families getting help finding fresh produce
The goal is the same: to supply low-income families with fresh, healthy, locally grown food.
But the routes two Charlottesville nonprofit groups are taking to reach that goal differ.
The Urban Agriculture Collective manages three city gardens in which volunteers can work in exchange for a share of the crop.
“Anyone can volunteer,” said Todd Niemeier , founder of the collective. “If you spend half an hour or more in the garden, you get a farm token.”
Farm tokens are small wooden coins that can be traded for a hefty bag of vegetables from the gardens. Bags are distributed Friday afternoons at Crescent Hall.
“One bag is probably worth $20 or $30 if you translate it into organic produce at the supermarket,” Niemeier said.
Volunteers also can drop tokens in a “pay-it-forward” jar, making their credit available to anyone who needs it.
“Agriculture is the kitschy, fun part, but this is really about people,” Niemeier said. “We feed between 40 and 50 families per week.”
Located in the Friendship Court , Sixth Street and West Street neighborhoods, the gardens have been around since 2007, when the Quality Community Council started them.
Vegetables from the gardens are distributed for free. Donations and income from seedlings sold at Gibson’s Grocery largely make up the collective’s $70,000 operating budget.
“This is a nonprofit in the truest sense of the word,” Niemeier said. “Our biggest success has been engaging a core group of really dedicated people, both volunteers and board members. And the majority are people who live in the neighborhoods where the gardens are.”
Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds have worked together to cultivate squash, tomatoes, lettuce, watermelons as well as herbs and other vegetables.
The project was not without challenges, Niemeier said.
“When it rains, people don’t volunteer,” he said.
The wet spring and summer brought rampant weeds and drove down turnout.
A more persistent challenge is to convince families and children that garden-grown produce is worth their time.
“Life in the neighborhoods where we work tends to be complex,” Niemeier said. “We want to meet people in a comfortable spot, where they feel like they can engage without stepping too far out of their comfort zone.”
Another nonprofit, Market Central, allows people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to redeem food stamp dollars at the Charlottesville City Market.
“We have a wireless terminal at the market, and you can swipe your SNAP card for tokens,” said Market Central Chairwoman Cecile Gorham. “The tokens can be exchanged for anything you use for food you prepare at home, like fresh produce.”
For the second year, Market Central is partnering with Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based foundation, to match the first 10 SNAP dollars someone spends at the market with another $10.
“That means that if you went to both the Saturday market and the Wednesday market [in Meade Park ], you would have $40 a week to spend on market food,” Gorham said.
About 15 people a week take advantage of the program, Gorham said. She said she hopes meetings with area food banks, local ministries and Charlottesville ’s Social Services Department will help spread the word.
“Charlottesville has something like 22 percent poverty,” Gorham said. “A lot of officials don’t like to talk about that, but it means there are a lot of people we could serve.”