Building True Accessibility27 Mar 2019, by AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Food for Others, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Virginia in
Maheyaar Barron is the Gleaning and Produce Recovery Coordinator at Food for Others, a food bank and pantry located in Fairfax, Virginia. The organization services the northern region of the state through a multitude of programs such as emergency food aid, weekend meals for elementary school children, neighborhood site deliveries, and community partner support. The gleaning program, which began in 2017 in partnership with Harvest Against Hunger, connects local growers to families in need, bringing in fresh produce directly from farms, farmers markets, and community gardens.
As the Food for Others gleaning program enters its third year, summer fruits and vegetables have become commonplace at all levels of distribution. The 2018 season brought in over 43,000 pounds of produce, giving clients fresh and nutritious options to take home to their families. The donations are distributed through the choice section, where referrals can shop for their food, as well as through neighborhood site distribution. Using these methods, Food for Others is working to increase food equity within its service region.
As the supply side of the equation is slowly improved, demand is still very complicated. Client preferences do not always align with available items, and some donations stay on the shelf, untouched. These inclinations are due to a variety of factors: Need for culturally appropriate food, lack of cooking skills or time to cook, nutrition education, the unfamiliarity of the produce, etc.
Efforts to provide more culturally relevant produce through the gleaning program are currently underway– the emphasis on community gardens. Belvedere Elementary School, which boasts multiple green spaces, has been looking for opportunities to further educate its students on social service. Using a produce preference survey conducted by the first VISTA, Amy Reagan, Belvedere will soon be growing high demand produce for the food bank. Local fifth grade girl scouts are taking similar measures by looking to cultivate a plot at their own school. As more and more gardens sign up to be a part of the Grow a Row program, Food for Others will be able to more optimally target its clients’ needs and decrease the amount of food left on the shelf.
To mitigate other factors preventing equal access to fresh produce, Food for Others is offering two eight week cooking courses in partnership with both a nearby low-income housing unit and the Virginia Extension office. The classes will be held at the housing unit, and will promote nutritious foods, cooking skills, food budgeting, and safe food handling. Through its connection with a local CSA, Waterpenny Farm, Food for Others will provide each attendee with a share of fresh produce. Recipes will center around the items in each weekly basket, with the intention of increasing participants’ knowledge of the different fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them. Upon completion of the course Virginia Extension will provide each member with an eighteen piece set of cooking pots, removing a high cost up-front barrier.
Access to healthy produce has many layers. Food for Others is attempting to balance meeting clients’ preferences with recognizing and combatting the systemic way in which marginalized communities have been primed to reject healthy options. This will require both time and a multifaceted approach.