By Grace Bost and Katharine DeRosa
Capital News Service
The founders of Fonticello Food Forest leaned under the picnic table to pick edible chickweed leaves and lavender flowers. Moments later they were running to the aid of their neighbors – some of their chickens were on the loose.
Jameson Price and Laney Sullivan founded the outdoor space, which serves as a free source of fresh, perishable food for community members. The food is donated or grown on site, the two men said. The property is located in Carter Jones Park, south of the James River in Richmond.
“It’s not charity work,” Price said. “It’s just work.”
Price and Sullivan are part of a larger effort to alleviate food insecurity and food waste throughout Virginia.
Food insecurity means that a household does not have access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle, according to the US Department of Agriculture. An estimated 10% of Virginians were food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; that percentage increased to 22% between April and May 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
Nationally, food insecurity remained unchanged at 10.5% between 2019 and 2020, according to the USDA. However, the use of the pantry increased between these two years.
More than 4% of families used pantries in 2019 and nearly 7% of families reported using a pantry in 2020, according to the USDA. Data for 2021 was not available as of mid-April, according to the USDA.
According to the USDA, pantry use is higher among food-insecure people.
Local grocery stores and nonprofits such as the Feed More food bank provide food for the Fonticello Food Forest, Price and Sullivan said. They made contact with store employees to help acquire leftover food; a method also deployed by the food-sharing organization Food Not Bombs where Sullivan also works.
“We’re trying to build relationships and understand what we’re trying to do, and the impact that has on families and people who need food,” Price said, “especially since the cost continues to increase but waste does not seem to be decreasing.
More than 816,000 tons of surplus food went to landfill in Virginia in 2019, according to data from ReFED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending food loss and waste in the United States. . The food Fonticello Food Forest saves from waste is a tiny chunk of the billions of pounds of food thrown away every day, Sullivan said.
“It’s not a better world,” Sullivan said. “It’s better than it would be if it all went to waste, but that’s not ideal.”
RVA Community Fridges is working to increase access to fresh, locally grown food, according to Taylor Scott, founder of the self-help nonprofit. The program aims to keep 10 established fridges in the Richmond area stocked with free food. Scott founded RVA Community Fridges in 2020 after wanting to redistribute surplus tomatoes she grew in her garden.
Mutual aid is the principle of serving one’s community to meet the immediate needs of community members, according to GlobalGiving, a nonprofit that connects other nonprofits with donors and businesses.
The goal is to add more refrigerators in food deserts, areas far from grocery stores and with limited access to fresh, affordable food.
The newest fridge was installed at Mrs Girlee’s Kitchen – a restaurant in the Fulton Hill area – after community members strongly requested it. The region is a food desert with no basic infrastructure, according to Scott.
Providing food to the Fulton Hill community has been rewarding, Scott said. More than 60% of the neighborhood’s population is black and 10% are over the age of 65, according to data from the US Census Bureau. Scott wants to add more refrigerators to communities of color. Blacks make up 29% of the population of Richmond and Petersburg, but make up 48% of people living in poverty, according to United Way, an organization that funds nonprofits in the Richmond area. Latinos make up 6% of the population but account for 15% of people living in poverty, according to the same data.
BLACK SPACE MATTERS
VCU’s Institute of Contemporary Art began a collaboration in 2020 with Duron Chavis, an urban farmer and community activist, to highlight food insecurity issues. Chavis grew food in the vacant land outside the museum which was then distributed. The project also highlighted the importance of Black community spaces for having conversations about food justice.
People can’t discuss food insecurity without discussing the issue of land use, Chavis said, because those who don’t have access to healthy food often don’t have access to land to cultivate. these foods.
“Our job is to achieve people’s dignity and ability to self-determine and make decisions for themselves that improve their health and increase access to healthy food without expecting some outside resource to step in and make everything better for them,” Chavis said.
Governments could create something like a dedicated office for urban agriculture, but Richmond hasn’t created such an office, Chavis said.
Mark Davis, founder of Real Roots Food Systems, is also working to expand access to locally grown foods. The organization’s goal is for people to know where their food comes from and experience ways to get food that don’t involve buying items.
“I think it’s a special thing to be in a cashless exchange in times like these, to build resilience in communities like this,” Davis said recently during an interview for the documentary series “Black Space Matters” Season 2.
Davis said he was growing food on land in Hanover County owned by the Richmond-based First Baptist Church. The church then donates the food to pantries and other outlets. RealRoots wants to create less waste in landfills and a meaningful collection of waste diversion research.
Virginia legislators are also enacting laws to help support access to local agriculture. Of the. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, introduced House Bill 2068 at the 2021 Virginia General Assembly session to connect local farmers with local consumers, he said.
The bill, which was passed unanimously by both houses in 2021, established the Local Food and Agriculture Infrastructure Grant Program. The program created grants to support infrastructure and other projects to support local agriculture. The grants are available on a competitive basis and award up to $25,000 per grant, according to the bill.
Examples of the use of subsidies include quick freezing of produce, canning of livestock feeds and the transfer of livestock feeds to wholesale markets, Rasoul said.
“So it’s about trying to get this local food from farm to market, and at the same time reducing our [carbon] footprint,” Rasoul said.
Rasoul submitted HB 323 last semester to double the program’s available grant from $25,000 to $50,000. Both chambers of the General Assembly also passed this measure unanimously.
The grants program awarded eight grants in December 2021 to various food infrastructure projects. Two of the projects involve improving farmers’ markets, two involve meat processors and two involve upgrading local canning systems, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Food insecurity has worsened due to COVID-19, according to data from Feeding America. However, data suggests that food insecurity was a problem among college students before the pandemic.
Youngmi Kim, an associate professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, researched food insecurity among college students before the onset of COVID-19. She found that 35% of VCU students were food insecure.
This discovery inspired environmental studies professor John Jones to imagine a miniature version of the main campus pantry, which began in 2014 and is located inside the University Student Commons at VCU.
Little Ram Pantries launched in October 2021 at various campus locations. People can take much of the non-perishable food they need and donate as much food as possible. Jones got the idea for the effort when he came across a small food pantry in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, he said. The effort mirrors the “little free pantry” movement born out of small free libraries seen in neighborhoods across the United States.
One aspect holding people back from using the main on-campus pantry is the stigma associated with pantry, according to Jones. He wanted to use the Little Ram Pantries as a way to remove the stigma around resource use, he said.
“Let’s try to make it so visible on campus that it fades into the background,” Jones said.
Jones has received program funding from the VCU Office of Community Engagement and Service Learning, and is supported by the school’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. Each box has a sensor to track when the boxes are opened and closed for Jones’ research.
Jones has found that students interact with the Little Ram Pantries at more than twice the rate at which they visit the main campus pantry. The main campus pantry gets about 34 visits a week, Jones said, while the satellite version he started gets about 75. That success led him to expand the program by creating more locations.
“I think the data we have is very promising,” Jones said. “And I think with a few tweaks, I think the model could be very effective on other campuses.”
Professors from the University of Alabama and the University of Western Georgia reached out to him about starting their own version of the program, Jones said. He wants to launch a website that details best practices for miniature pantries, he said.
Despite the success of Little Ram Pantries and other pantry designs, Jones said pantries aren’t a solution to food insecurity.
“If our society is serious about addressing the underlying problem of people’s hunger, then we need to look at why people aren’t being paid enough,” Jones said.
Fonticello Food Forest founders Price and Sullivan helped round up the neighbor’s free range chickens and returned to complete the maintenance.
Efforts to address food insecurity are notable, they said, but should not be necessary.
“In a truly just world and a truly reciprocal caring world, there wouldn’t be this food waste to redistribute and people would be more connected to the food process,” Price said. “We understand that it’s not such an easy thing, to suddenly turn on a light switch, so you do what you do in the meantime.”