I kicked off the Saturday morning of this heat wave weekend doing volunteer work for Urban Harvest STL, a nonprofit organization aiming to, "grow healthy produce across a network of six urban farms in downtown and North St. Louis and donate the majority of the harvest to nonprofit partners serving communities with limited or non-existent access to healthy, nutritious food. Urban Harvest STL also educates and engages the surrounding community in these efforts." I have sat on the organization's board for about 18 months.
The day's task was to help distribute food harvested that morning from one of our farms to part of the Jeff VanderLou neighborhood, which is about a mile north of highway 40 & Jefferson.
For many of us, it can be easy to forget while riding the wave of our reborn food-driven culture, there are many who lack basic access to fresh food or the ability o afford it. In fact, more than 17% of Missourians are cited as "food insecure", meaning: they are not sure whether they have sufficient food for the month. More than a third of that population states they skip meals in order to make their food go further. In the city, that number is roughly 26%. Similar rates can also be found in many of the state's rural counties.
Not only do 1/4 of people living in the city not know if they'll have enough food for the month, but I think about another perspective too. Yesterday I made two trips to the grocery store. The first one was a casual pop-in for an item or two I wanted for lunch and later in the day I realized a couple additional things I needed and headed back out. Both times in my car. But what if I didn't have a car? Or what if I did but was earning a much lower wage and spur of the moment trips cut into my already razor-thin budget? If I'm already having trouble affording food, the effort or expense of getting to the store is another thing I'd have to consider.
These are things Urban Harvest thinks about every day. How might we make it easier for people to access fresh food and, know what to do with it. If I hand you an artichoke without instructions, I am counting on you to figure out how to prepare it. Put another way by the comedian Mitch Hedberg, "when someone on the street hands you a flyer its like they're saying, 'Here! You throw this away.'"
Chef Dan Barber says, decisions about food should focus more on flavor. As I think about it, healthy food is a push. People have to be compelled to eat that way or have had a recent reason to decide to make the switch to eating healthier. People do not have to be compelled to eat delicious food. Thankfully, flavorful fresh ingredients are typically healthy too.
Back to Saturday morning.
The time was 10:45, my car's thermometer read 93. I was staring at a metro bus that had been repurposed into a mobile grocery market, called St. Louis Metro Market sitting near the corner of Cass & Jefferson.
In partnership with the metro market, Urban Harvest has recently launched something called the "Veggie Bike". My job was to take produce harvested from the roof that morning, hop on the bike, meet people in the neighborhood, inform them about the metro market and give them some great tasting produce in the process.
Here is what I was reminded of yesterday in the scorching heat. Despite how much complaining we hear about our city's wrongdoings, past and present, there are wonderful people out there. Lucas and the team at Metro Market have in some small measure made a dent in part of the city's food desert. They acquire delicious foods, are able to offer them at a reduced cost and provide great hospitality while you're with them.
I can tell you while I rode my bike throughout the neighborhood I met a lot of great people. We laughed together, I received many thank yous, god bless yous and hugs. The thing I must remember in moments of despair about my segregated and troubled city is the good-natured people who live here.
Tensions are no doubt high in this moment. There are a lot of hard conversations happening and turbulence as a result of historical and present day injustices. But that is not a reason to not reach out and get to know each other. There is a part of Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience that comes to mind,"It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious [people] is a corporation with a conscience." Can't the same thing be said about a city? We must step into our conscientiousness and be the citizens we want to be, effecting policy and building bridges across he divide.
Go Forth Boldly
"In a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other."