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Richmond Groups Join Forces To Fight Food Deserts

Groups in Richmond are working to make fruits and vegetables available to more residents.
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Groups in Richmond are working to make fruits and vegetables available to more residents.

A food desert is a neighborhood with no supermarkets—a place where you can't buy fresh fruits or vegetables. Richmond, Virginia has been rated the worst food desert in the nation for a city of its size, but an effort is underway to change that.

On a sultry afternoon on Richmond's historic Church Hill, Bobby Ellis parks his black SUV outside the Clay Street Market, leaving the radio on as he heads in to stock up on summer essentials. James Brown, Willie Robinson and Serge Lewis are also picking up supplies.

What do they usually buy at the store? "Oh cigarettes. Potato chips, sodas, mostly beer and alcohol," says Ellis, admitting that he doesn't usually buy fruits or vegetables.

"I would buy fresh fruits and vegetables. He don't have the variety that I like. No corn, no lettuce, no lima beans," he says. When asked if he'd like to have that variety available, Ellis is emphatic: "Of course!"

That's where Virginia Community Capital comes in. That group persuaded eight not-for-profits, government agencies and corporations to launch a program offering small payments to corner stores willing to carry a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Supplies come from Tricycle Gardens, a group that uses vacant land in Richmond to grow crops.

"Right now in the summer time you'll find tomatoes and peppers and squash and eggplant," says Sally Schwitters, Tricycle's director. She says local children are a central part of the growing effort—discovering where food comes from and saying the darndest things.

"'That's a carrot? I've never had a blackberry before,'" mimics Schwitters. "It's surprising, but it's also beautiful to see a child delight in a love for broccoli that they didn't know they had, because they've never enjoyed it fresh," she says.

Tricycle Gardens also offers cooking demonstrations. "We did tastings of a cucumber-tomato salad that people were at first reluctant: 'I'm not sure I want to try that,' and then came back for more and more," says Schwitters.

So far, only two corner stores on Richmond's east side have signed up to take part in the Get Fresh program, but Virginia Community Capital's Paul Nolde hopes to expand into other neighborhoods and eventually go statewide.

The coalition surveyed more than 200 residents before planting this year's crops, and it continues to get feedback from potential customers  to supply the vegetables and fruits they want at their neighborhood stores.

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