Fewer tricks and more treats in local food access movement
It’s November, which means trick-or-treating, scary movies, haunted houses and ghost stories have passed. But, as is often the case, some of the scariest stories and experiences are things we are faced with every day and hide in plain sight. For instance, if the Mahoning Valley had a quality of life FAQ, one of the questions haunting the top would be, “Where are the grocery stores?”
The answer to this question has been to woo a large supermarket chain to open its doors to our communities. After years of flirting, courting, and even some proposing, our region is still standing, waiting for a store to say “yes.”
After having been jilted a few too many times, several community leaders are rethinking the search for a supermarket soulmate and instead are turning the search inward—shifting the conversation and strategy from fixating on what we don’t have to focusing on what has been right in front of us all along.
Many residents in the Mahoning Valley share memories and stories of a time when things were different. When jobs and food were abundant, not scarce. When residents could walk to the end of the street and find a new job at one of many steel manufacturing companies or to grab staple items like bread, milk, veggies, and so on. This storyline may not have been the same for all eyes that saw it or ears that heard it, but some version continues to be repeated year after year, decade after decade.
With the loss of the steel mills came the loss of so much else. Routines and relationships that had been well-established were upended almost literally overnight. For the purpose of this reflection, we’ll focus on the impacts the changing economic and cultural landscape had on businesses that provided food and friendship to the neighborhoods in which they were rooted.
Much ink has been spilled lamenting the loss and ongoing lack of healthy, affordable foods in Mahoning Valley communities, especially our two largest cities: Youngstown and Warren. The issue of so-called “food deserts”—a term that is fast falling out of favor—is well-known and often repeated in many local news stories, studies and reports, and countless community meetings as a top-of-mind high-priority concern for residents.
Yet, the issue lingers, like a hungry ghost, searching for a resolution that feels like it will never come.However, the desperation and frustration with the current conditions regarding access to healthy, affordable foods is very real. We’ve seen glimmers of hope go dark quicker than a flash of lightning tearing across the sky.
COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION
While there are some things big-name big-box grocery stores can offer—large variety of products, low prices, curbside or delivery services— one thing they can’t guarantee is that they know, are connected to, and invested in the community they are serving. Locally owned and supported food-based businesses—like farmers markets, mobile markets, food hubs, and community stores—know the names of their customers, the histories of the neighborhoods they’re located in, and the people that grew the food they are selling. The lack of connection between people, producers, and profits has produced a fragmented and dysfunctional food system that we have become too used to and dependent on. The longer communities experiencing barriers to healthy food access put all or even most of their eggs in the big-box basket, the longer their health and their wealth will be kept waiting for a day that might never come.
As Arthur Potts Dawson, chef, activist, and entrepreneur, said, “Supermarkets don’t really sustain a community, and they completely remove people from the food chain.”
A shift seems to be occurring in strategy and in practice, away from waiting for someone or something to come and “save” us. Rather, communities are recalibrating and recognizing that they have the capacity, compassion, and courage to “save” themselves, which produces much better, healthier, longer lasting results.
Food is about community and connection. We need to embrace strategies that decentralize disconnected, external corporate control of the food system and recentrer people—as growers, consumers, and owners. Throughout the last couple of years, and accelerated by the pandemic, new innovative, effective, and community-connected models of addressing the food access challenges have been developed and implemented.
Just in October, which falls between Hunger Awareness Month (September) and Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week (November 12-20) the Mahoning Valley has seen and celebrated two significant food access milestones in less than 48 hours:
- Access Healthy Food Mahoning Valley Greenhouse Groundbreaking and Food Hub Ribbon Cutting
- Mac’s Market Opening
GREENHOUSE AND FOOD HUB
Under brilliant, beautiful blue sky on a sunny, crisp Wednesday morning, community leaders from across sectors and the state of Ohio converged on the Campus of Care. The magnet pulling people to this place was the new Access Healthy Foods Mahoning Valley initiative being led by Flying High, Inc. Access Healthy Foods Mahoning Valley builds on the success of Flying High’s GROW (Gaining Real Opportunities for Work) Urban Farm program and the collaborations with partners like ACTION to put people back in the driver’s seat to overcome barriers to food access.
The new facility includes a commercial kitchen where partners will prepare meals for distribution throughout the community. In particular, the kitchen will provide thousands of meals for students enrolled in the local Head Start program.There’s plenty of dry and cold storage for prepared meals as well as produce and other essential pantry items. A loading dock is ready and waiting to restock the Mahoning Valley Mobile Market so it can bring healthy, affordable foods—and a friendly face or two—into Mahoning County neighborhoods. And hopefully, soon to include neighborhoods in Trumbull County, as well. A constant stream of tours showed attendees through the new facility while awaiting for Governor DeWine’s arrival to continue the celebration of these accomplishments for the Mahoning Valley.
In addition to the building, the celebration also included a groundbreaking for a new greenhouse facility, which will grow produce to be used by Flying High and their partners in the kitchen and on the road.
Speaking to Emily Scott from the Tribune Chronicle, Flying High, Inc. founder and CEO, Jeff Magada, shared his vision about the importance of reconnecting people to the earth, to the process of growing and getting food, and perhaps most importantly, to themselves: “When you involve growing with therapy and people actually put their hands in the dirt, you are really addressing two needs,” Magada said. “You are aiding in therapeutic recovery and increasing food access.”
MAC’S MARKET AND HEALTHY COMMUNITY STORE
Almost exactly twenty-four hours later, a smaller group gathered at a well-maintained, inauspicious brick building on the corner of Highland Avenue and Oak Street on the southwest side of the city of Warren. Though the size of the group differed, the energy and excitement was just as intense as the day before.
Mac’s Market owners, Jamaal and Mia McEachern were joined by Lydia Walls from Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, Councilwoman-at-large Helen Rucker, Healthy Community Partnership staff, and an early customer or two in celebration of the opening of this new community store.
In the Warren Community Food Security Strategic Plan, data reinforced the well-known fact that neighborhoods in the southwest portion of the City of Warren are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to lack of available options for healthy, affordable foods. Since then, Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership (TNP) staff have developed trust and relationships with new and established business owners, like the McEachern’s, to help bring healthy, affordable foods into these small stores.
Much like the move away from the term “food desert,” TNP’s efforts are not only focused on creating physical changes, but they are also changing the narrative about small stores and recognizing the value they hold in the neighborhoods and communities in which they operate. Mac’s Market is the latest success story in the evolution from corner stores becoming healthy community stores, which re-establish connections between people, place, and produce.
As was shared by the McEacherns, they are not only business owners, they and their families are residents. Though Mr. McEachern is originally from Pittsburgh, he shared with Deanne Johnson from the Business Journal that he and his wife moved to Warren to be closer to family. For business owners to also be residents means they have a deeper stake in the success of the business beyond profits.
The Healthy Community Store initiative has expanded to become a regional effort working with businesses, community partners, and residents in both Trumbull and Mahoning Counties. The initiative has been the central focus for two Food Access Coordinators: Chrsitian Bennett-Mosley in Trumbull County and Sophia Buggs in Mahoning County. The Coordinators and their team are leading the charge to change hearts and minds and feed communities is optimistic that the seemingly counterintuitive strategy to return our focus inward and backward will help our communities move forward.
‘EVOLUTION OF THE CORNER STORE’
It is this visible and deeper connection to the community that Strong Towns lifts up in the article, “Evolution of the Corner Store” by Davina van Buren. The article profiles the Bessemer Curb Market in Greensboro, North Carolina. Cecile Crawford shares memories of the convenience shopping at the market before its unfortunate closure due to changing patterns in housing and retail development. Small, local stores like the Bessemer Curb Market continue to face a David and Goliath scenario as more big box retailers roll in, which harms shoppers like Ms. Crawford as well as the families who own and run the stores. Fortunately, there is a happy ending. The Bessemer Curb Market was reborn—through the hard work and determination of local residents and leaders—as the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market. Again, which is a success story to celebrate for shoppers, growers, and owners alike.
Van Buren sums up the approach to revive and reinvest in small stores, community stores, so succinctly and persuasively in her conclusion I can’t say it any better:
They may look different than the corner stores of the past, but local retail establishments can still be a part of smart, sustainable development. As more metropolitan areas seek to ease traffic by making cities more pedestrian and bike-friendly, I hope we see the return of more corner stores. We can return to a time when residents had easy access to family-owned establishments that sold fresh, healthy food—those like the Bessemer Curb Market—if we stay committed to improving the American food system. Corner stores aren’t just places to buy snacks, smokes, and lottery tickets—they are a valuable and underappreciated part of a close-knit community.
These examples show that it is possible for our communities to come together to break bread and bad habits. Hopefully, home-grown efforts like Access Healthy Foods Mahoning Valley, the Mahoning Valley Mobile Market, the Mahoning Valley Community Store Initiative, and Mac’s Market will conjure up enough collaboration and celebration to break the curse that has been haunting and hampering healthy food access in our communities for far too long.