The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Kevin Petersen
Old North St. Louis looks a lot like the other areas in St. Louis City. Battered red brick buildings line the streets that stretch as far as the eye can see, and faded signs cling to old churches and corner stores.
For this reason, the building at the corner of 13th Street and St. Louis Avenue seems unremarkable, but the brightly colored banner hung across the top signals something new.
"FARM FRESH GROCERIES. EVERYONE WELCOME!"
Next-door, a fenced lot with a chicken coop and a large urban garden seems even more out of place within the city limits.
So what is all this doing here?
Old North is in the midst of a revitalization. The crumbling brick buildings are being pieced back together, people are moving back to the area and the food gap is closing. That building on the corner — the Old North Grocery Co-op — is one the reasons why.
"Old North is a nutritious food desert — there is food in the neighborhood, there is Crown Candy, a gas station, a couple of fast food restaurants, but there was not a nutritious option year-round until the grocery store opened," said Kara Lubischer, who works in Old North as a community development specialist for University of Missouri Extension.
"The goal is to improve the overall health of the neighborhood," she said. "The way to do that is to have the right choices available."
Before the grocery co-op opened in 2010, Crown Candy Kitchen, a staple to St. Louis sweet tooths, was the closest place to buy food. Nearby Bob’s Quality Market mainly sold beer, chips, hair weaves and cell phones. The closest grocery store was 20 minutes away by bus, but most residents travelled about 40 minutes to a farther, safer store, Lubischer said.
In a recent speech, John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, discussed one of the problems with the food system.
"Certainly people need to be educated about food choice, but they need to have a range of choices of foods they can select." Ikerd said. "If we do that, then people will make good, healthy choices."
Sarah Kate Buckles, manager of the grocery co-op, said people are doing just that.
"I think a lot of people, when they realize that they’re saving money on their produce, are willing to spend a little bit more on maybe a healthier option," said Buckles, who buys produce directly from farmers, keeping costs low.
The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, which works in all areas of community development in the neighborhood, planned five steps to making an oasis in the food desert.
In 2007, the North City Farmers’ Market opened. Located near Crown Candy, the market has vendors of products grown, raised or created locally. The market also features cooking demonstrations, free health screenings and live entertainment.
The 13th Street Community Garden opened in 2009 as a place to grow produce for the farmers’ market and, eventually, the grocery co-op. Anyone can volunteer. The plots are free and include a section of raised beds in boxes so gardeners who need to be seated can also contribute. In its opening year, the garden produced over 1,300 pounds of fresh produce.
Also in 2009, Rusty Lee of Lee Farms in Truxton, Mo., started bringing his CSA, or community supported agriculture, to Old North.
"I call it a magazine subscription, where you get food instead of a magazine," said Lee, who also sells produce in the grocery co-op and at the farmers’ market.
CSA subscribers get a box of vegetables every week from June through mid-October. Those who cannot afford a subscription can buy food through the Restoration Group, which parcels and sells a few subscription boxes weekly.
In July 2010, the Old North Grocery Co-op opened with the mission of providing year-round affordable, fresh, healthy and local food – from 100 feet to 100 miles — whenever possible.
Cooking, food preservation and nutrition classes are part of the next step for closing the food gap in Old North.
"In 2011, we’ll start the community education component," Lubischer said. "It’s not enough to have the four different options — now we need to teach people how to eat it."
Food desert communities like Old North have come up with many answers to the problem, but the core principle stays the same, said Mary Hendrickson, director of the Food Circles Networking Project, a program of University of Missouri Extension.
"It’s about the people caring enough to say, ‘We’re giving you good stuff,’" she said. "People have to think somebody cares about them — bringing them food tells them that."