Pittsburghers want to fight food deserts with urban farms, mobile markets and community
But changes to federal policy could threaten the good being done locally.
Raqueeb Bey’s father grew tomatoes, greens and strawberries in their Pittsburgh backyard, populated by a dozen fig trees, when she was growing up.
“I would help him occasionally when I was a kid,” said Bey, who was raised in Homewood and Uptown.
When Bey moved back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, her father was too ill to take care of his plot at a community garden on Fifth Avenue. So she helped him out by weeding — although she admits she pulled up as many wanted plants as she did undesirable ones.
“People were like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing? Hold on!” Bey said.
Bey wouldn’t make that mistake now.
In 2011, she formed Mama Africa’s Green Scouts, then a group of 12 adults and their 17 children, learning how to plant food. Today it’s a youth organization that teaches kids about urban agriculture, green sustainability, African culture, community development, responsibility and leadership skills.
When she started a Homewood branch in 2015, Bey noticed “that we” — black urban farmers and gardeners — “needed to come together collectively on our different projects, because urban ag is a lot of work. … We needed to come together as black people to fight systematic racism that exists in urban agriculture in Pittsburgh that we have experienced.”
From that, the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers Cooperative of Pittsburgh was born. Last summer, the collective started a farmers market in Homewood that features cooking demonstrations and social justice speakers. Now, BUGs has bigger plans that include starting a farm on Monticello Street across from Westinghouse Academy and opening a small co-op in the neighborhood.
Homewood is a food desert, meaning it’s an area without access to a grocery store. About half of Pittsburgh’s residents live in communities like that, according to a 2013 report by local hunger and poverty nonprofit Just Harvest.
BUGs is semi-finalist for UpPrize, a “purpose-driven innovation” challenge focused on two areas: technology and healthy food. Many of the ideas that have advanced in the latter category tackle food deserts.
Turning a food desert into an oasis
From dozens of submissions, UpPrize organizers selected 10 healthy food semi-finalists in December. Among them are 412 Food Rescue’s sustainable meal delivery service, The Good Food Project; the Bible Center’s Oasis Project which plans to build a farm and fishery in Homewood; and Pangea Community Foods’ mobile, year-round farmers market.
The last project’s creators, Rob Burns and Christopher Olpp, had very different experiences growing up. Burns was raised in Carrick and still works in “hilltop communities where food deserts are a big problem” as a legislative assistant for Rep. Jake Wheatley.
Olpp, on the other hand, was raised in Northeastern Pa., and had “constant access” to fresh food from nearby farms — something he took for granted.
He came to Pittsburgh to attend college, and when that didn’t pan out, moved to Uptown to save money. From there, he had to walk across the Birmingham Bridge to the Giant Eagle on the South Side to get groceries.
Olpp was young enough to do his grocery shopping like this, but it made him think about his neighbors who couldn’t, either because of age or another circumstance like having children.
“Bringing the food to them,” he said, “seems like the desirable choice.”
Burns and Olpp run a small catering company and had discussed starting a food truck. When they learned about UpPrize, Burns said they turned their attention toward food deserts and applied the food truck model to grocery stores.
The mobile operation would “give [local farmers] access to a market they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Burns said, while giving people in areas like Carrick “access to food they wouldn’t otherwise have.” The plan is for the market to visit “as many areas in the city as possible,” Burns said, and to be operating by early- to mid-spring.
The project will move forward regardless of whether they win UpPrize money.
“There’s something about giving people good, simple food that resonates with me,” Olpp said. A farmers market can “be an epicenter for communities to thrive around if you build it the right way.”
In the future, Burns said they would want to work with the Allegheny Land Trust or Urban Redevelopment Authority to turn abandoned plots of land into greenhouses and community gardens.
That way, the people in those communities can provide healthy food for themselves.
‘The American safety net’
BUGs’ UpPrize submission is predicated on a similar idea.
“We need an urban farm in Homewood,” Bey said, and the one BUGs plans to build one (with or without UpPrize money) will operate year-round. It will also serve as a classroom for Westinghouse students so they can learn not just about urban ag but landscaping, landscape design and care farming (growing medicinal herbs to treat challenges like PTSD and anxiety).
There will be chickens and raised beds so community members can learn about growing food. There are thousands and thousands of blighted lots in the city, Bey noted, many of them in Homewood. She’s heard from residents who’d like to use that space for gardens of their own or even for livestock. But it’s not good enough just to set aside some of these spaces for urban agriculture.
“It needs to be a program that is driven by Homewood community residents,” Bey said, noting that several BUGs members have ties to that neighborhood.
Another component of BUGs’ UpPrize pitch is a community-led food co-op for Homewood, which doesn’t have a grocery store. “Community members will have a say so” in what’s sold there, Bey said.
The farmers market will also continue. It’s one of 18 in Allegheny County that participates in Fresh Access, a program by Just Harvest that enables vendors to accept food stamps. As part of the program, vendors must also accept debit and credit cards to ensure “that everyone is treated the same,” Executive Director Ken Regal said.
“We had a quite successful year,” Regal said. All the markets combined did $204,000 in total electronic sales during the latest market season; $43,000 was from food stamps.
Just Harvest submitted an idea to UpPrize, but it didn’t advance to the semi-finals. But the nonprofit is partnering with semi-finalist Economic Development South on a project to revitalize Clairton, a food desert about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. According to EDS, the closest grocery store to the city is four miles by vehicle and 90 minutes by public transportation.
EDS wants to open a healthy corner store inspired by Just Harvest’s Fresh Corners program, which provides resources to businesses that want to sell healthy food. Three locations are up and running in Allegheny County with more in the works.
But all of this good work being done locally to fight food deserts and hunger could easily be harmed, Regal said, if Congress decides to cut food stamps and roll back child nutrition programs — issues Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans are eyeing.
“We are profoundly worried … that there will be a significant attack on the core of the American safety net for poor people,” Regal said.
Just Harvest plans to make the case to state politicians and garner community support for a “strong, compassionate safety net” — to convince others that preserving food stamp benefits is the “moral” and “economically sensible thing to do.”
“What we and others are doing in this community to make Pittsburgh and Allegheny County a leader in improving access to good food — those initiatives are really exciting,” Regal said. “They can paint a picture for public and policymakers about what actually works.”
But as Regal pointed out, the healthy food grants UpPrize plans to give away total under half a million dollars. (An anticipated 10 finalists will each receive a $10,000 grant, while Bridgeway Capital will award the winner or winners of the food challenge up to $300,000 collectively in flexible debt and grants.)
In November 2016 alone, more than 160,000 people in Allegheny County collectively received $19.2 million worth of food stamp benefits.
That’s about four dollars a day per person.
The cost of supplementing Americans’ food budgets “is a lot less expensive to taxpayers than coping with the consequences of hunger,” Regal said.
Because if the government doesn’t protect people’s ability to buy decent food, “all that access … is not really useful.”