From Tiny Seeds, Mighty Collard Greens Grow

Saleh Murshed, whose family runs the Clay Street Market, stocks the shop’s new refrigerator with fresh greens.

 by James A. Bacon

To grasp the challenge that faces the reformers who want to introduce wholesome fruits and vegetables into the food desert of Richmond’s inner city, go visit the Clay Street Market in Church Hill. Step through the front door and glance around. To the left, you’ll see Shawn Algahein or one of his relatives behind the cash register ringing up sales of cigarettes, lottery tickets, food and other convenience items. Sweeping your gaze to the right, you’ll view shelf after shelf of food so unhealthy that just looking at it hardens the arteries. Near the door is an array of candy: Twix, Skittles, Hershey chocolate bars and dozens of other brands. Nearby, racks groan under six-packs of Miller beer and big plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. Counters display an endless assortment of snack foods: Dorito’s, Lays Potato Chips and varieties of pork rinds you’ll never find in a suburban store. Toward the rear, you’ll spot shelf space devoted to real if not especially nutritious food, like rice, potatoes, ketchup, canned peas and and canned spaghetti.

Amidst the cornucopia of salt, sugar and fat, set just behind a case loaded with ice cream bars, stands a small refrigerator, a little bigger than one you might find in a college dorm room. Through the glass case you can see a dozen or so bundles of locally grown collard greens and salad greens.

Sales of fresh vegetables are a little slow, says Algahein. He hopes they will pick up in the beginning of the month when many of his customers get their food stamps. “When people see [the fresh food], they say it’s good we have it,” he says. “People are excited that we have it.”

In the past when he tried fresh fruit and vegetables, he lost money. He stocked green peppers, bananas, apples and oranges, he says, but “we threw a lot of stuff away.” Eventually, he gave up. But this time is different. He is taking no financial risk. Tricycle Gardens, a non-profit urban farm, provided the refrigerator at no expense, and it promises to reimburse Alghahein for any produce that goes bad. Give it time, he says, and the vegetables could catch on. “People are looking for stuff that is healthier.”

The Clay Street Market is one of two convenience stores — a Valero market in the Fulton area is the other — participating in a pilot project that Tricycle Gardens and its partners launched this month. The short-term goal is to sell enough fresh fruit and veggies to justify taking up permanent shelf space in the two convenience stores. A longer-term goal is to replicate the project elsewhere. The ultimate goal is to obliterate food deserts, where fresh food is inaccessible to anyone without a car, across the commonwealth.

Sally Schwitters, executive director of Tricycle Gardens, is under no illusions that the task will be easy but she is optimistic. The launch has met expectations. “Within the first week,” she says, “we sold out of collard greens.”

The Healthy Corners initiative arose from conversations involving Tricycle Gardens, the City of Richmond, the state health department, Virginia Community Capital and the Bon Secours of Richmond Health System. City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbill chaired a series of meetings beginning in December 2012. All parties shared a concern that poor nutrition was a root cause of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other maladies afflicting the poor.

“Everyone saw the need and said, ‘Yes, let’s do this,” recalls Teri Lovelace, vice president-corporate development for Virginia Community Capital, a community development financial institution. What she found remarkable, she adds, is the speed with which things came together. People started talking in December and food was placed in two markets by April.

Inspired by the experience of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in distributing fresh food through inner-city grocery stores, the Richmond participants put their own spin on the idea. For starters, they had less money so they decided to start with a pilot project rather than a city-wide roll-out. On the other hand, Tricycle Gardens already had built a strong network of relationships in the East End, so it held a series of community meetings to test the waters. Read more.

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17 responses to “From Tiny Seeds, Mighty Collard Greens Grow”

  1. DJRippert Avatar


    This is great work. However, you may be coming up a bit short. Have you ever cooked collard greens? You need more than collard greens. I use ham hock, smoked turkey leg, onion, garlic and chicken stock. I know a lot of “old school” cooks. every one uses at least ham hock, onion and garlic. Also, you have to wash collard greens thoroughly. Like leeks, they tend to get a lot of grit. Washing is easy – fill up a sink with water and float the collard greens in the water. Swoosh around the greens and the grit will fall to the bottom. Fail to wash the greens and you have a dish of dirt.

    Given that many of the people going to the store have little experience with fresh vegetables I wonder if they know how to cook collard greens. Simply plunking the greens into boiling water and then eating them would result is a very disappointing experience. I also wonder if the store has the other necessary ingredients – onion, garlic, ham hock. The ingredients are few and they are inexpensive but you must have them to make the collard greens taste good.

    Has anybody cooked collard greens at one of these stores? Let people sample the finished product (properly cooked)? Handed out recipes?

    Properly cooked, collard greens are fabulous. Improperly cooked – not so much.

    1. Wow, I never would have taken you for an expert in collard greens! I know nothing about them.

      You are totally correct in assuming that most people, including those in the inner city, have no idea of how to cook them. Tricycle Gardens is trying to remedy that by holding a series of demonstration/cooking classes in the neighborhood. But even that may not solve the problem if people can’t buy the necessary ingredients at the corner store. I’ll pass that thought along to the Tricycle Gardens people to ponder. Most likely they’ve already thought of it… but maybe they haven’t.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I was so motivated by your column I went out and got some collard greens for dinner. The ones in Great Falls come in a bag but the Safeway has ham hocks so I am in business.

        1. We get ours at WalMart – on a regular basis – probably once a week !

          it’s one of my favorite foods… other dinners last through one or two “left-over” meals – the greens seldom last past one “left over”. Through the miracle of microwave, I’ve had greens for breakfast!

          don’t ask me about the sodium….

  2. accurate Avatar

    I hope the ‘experiment’ works, but I fear the odds are pretty low. You describe the store, why are all the ‘unhealthy’ stuff taking up so much space and are so dominant? Because it sells, THAT is what people buy, THAT is what they spend food stamps, EBT cards and cash on. Chances are more than half the folks don’t even know HOW to cook the veggies properly and half of those who do don’t have the proper pots, pans or cooking facilities to cook them. Plus, when the learn/discover, how much ‘time’ it takes to cook one versus slamming a ‘hot pocket’ in the microwave, which one do you think they will choose? Again, it would be nice if the experiment pays off, but there again, it would be nice if the number I bet on at the roulette table came up too.

    1. The time and convenience issue may be a deal breaker, I don’t know. Some people will be too friggin’ lazy to be bothered. But if you could get half the population eating healthy food, that would be a huge step forward.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Perhaps Don could lecture down there in Richmond on the subject. You know, like the Julia Childs of various collard Greens dishes. Or do it from up north by long distance education even.

      2. well … so I have a question. how do we know a lot of this food is bad?

        who told us that? how do we determine for each item whether it’s got bad stuff in it or not?

        do you think big, bad, nasty govt regulation had something to do with it?

        just tweaking you guy – but I assume you’re depending, at least in part, on the nutrition information on each food item… which came about from that big bad nanny govt regulation, right?

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Heck, I was having ’em for lunch. Instead of lettuce on my ham sandwich!

  4. In the rural South, especially among people of color, collard greens are old hat and DJ is correct about how to prepare them.

    I’m a bit surprised that people of color in Richmond don’t know how to prepare collards….

    and horror of horrors, I have to AGREE with Accurate!

    the way we make food and eat it has changed. Much of it is not good for you but quite a bit of it IS good for you and it’s the same calculation it always has been – your responsibility to pick and choose what is good for you and more important, being responsible for NOT eating what is not good for you or at least do it in moderation as a “treat”.

    in the GOD – good old days …. remember when you occasionally would get a “treat” – something sugary … or “rich” … but it was never an all day steady diet – 24/7.

    and I agree with Jim Bacon – something is wrong with SNAP and other food programs when the average recipient is NOT some poor schmuck who is obviously short on nutrition and quite often – people who get food assistance would look “plump” compared to most folks in the world who are said to be in need of food. In this country, it means something else.

  5. I help out at a twice-monthly food pantry. there’s a few fresh produce but most of it is canned vegetables, soup and boxed pasta and cereal. and yes.. there is some junk food as we get whatever the stores decide to get rid of.

    but I have to say – most of the clientele in this rural area either have a car or access to a friend with a car and we do also have a farmers market that does take EBT.

    so .. people are not stranded in their homes.. they have ways to get out and if they want – to get fresh food.

    In fact, in our area, the southern half of the county is rural – people can and do have gardens.

    For a long, long time, the county actually had a “cannery” where people could come and can their food and they did come in great numbers – until the 1980’s and the operation gradually got fewer and fewer people and closed.

    I’m pretty skeptical of the idea of people growing their own food or buying locally-grown fresh food, in part, because places like WalMart provide a cornucopia of fresh produce where not only can you find collard greens but turnip greens and kale. as well as a good variety of green beans, squash, and brussel sprouts which my wife can turn into something better than steak with the help of some bacon ….

    I just have a hard time buying the idea that people are “trapped” in the city and cannot get themselves out to a WalMart to use their EBT to get fresh produce – if they want it.

    Richmond is not overrun with WalMarts but I suspect there are a good variety of similar size grocery chains that do provide a good array of produce.

    I have this prejudice – about what I call: “do-gooders”. They mean well and do work hard at their mission but sometimes I think they fundamentally misunderstand the real issues with the poor and disadvantaged and it almost seems like some kind of guilt is what drives their efforts because .. urban gardens are not what the poor/disadvantaged want or need.

    Most folks today – even those who live where they could have big, productive gardens, will tell you that the amount of time, money and effort they put into it cannot be justified economically because food is so cheap these days. Gardens have become hobbies.. and are no longer what they used to be for many people in supplementing their diet.

    The poor/disadvantaged are not really different than the American middle class when it comes to Cheeze wiz or microwave popcorn.. they have the same tastes and the capability to buy it if they want it.

    somehow, some of us expect the poor/disadvantaged to be ‘different’ when it comes to food.

    they’re not. they’re just like the rest of America and the companies that make fast food and snacks know it and that’s why Saleh Murshed store carries the very same “bad” food that folks can (and do) buy at Walmart.

  6. Another thing I would mention – from Richmond – is the Central Virginia Food Bank – of which the Fredericksburg Food Pantry is an affiliate. (remove the dashes).

    I like these organizations because they are year around and comprehensive in their services and most important they cooperate and coordinate between each other and also act as central clearinghouses in their respective areas.

    if you visit the sites you will see that they also have extensive partnerships with corporations like WalMart and FoodLion and many other corporations.

    food that runs out of date – even meats – and bakery products get funneled into an impressive logistics operation that flows from the stores to the central warehouse and then out to the individual food pantry’s operated by Churches and other community organizations.

    They are funded by charitable donations and they are a distributor of USDA food and “Food for Life” ( which is related to Hare Krishna).

    it’s not perfect. Such large organizations tend to have the normal bureaucratic warts that tend to accompany such operations but overall it’s an example of how communities can and do help themselves AND (in my view) how to do so as a coordinated logistical operation rather than dozens or hundreds of independent operations that would be inherently less efficient and redundant in operations and who gets served.

    My entire point here is to open a little window into the fact that there already is a substantial state, regional, and local operation to help the nutritional needs of those in need, to include more than just kids or city-dwellers.

    In my mind, the Central Va Food Bank and it’s affiliate regional operations is worth an article here in BR where sometimes we seem to spend so much time banging on what doesn’t work or in the case of “collards” – highlighting something that is good and well intentioned but almost ignoring the “other” major group in Richmond that is dedicated to helping.

    1. The Richmond-area food bank is FoodMore. It is a model of modern industrial efficiency. It is amazing what the not-for-profit sector is doing to address the nutrition gap. As it happens, I am working on an article about FoodMore.

  7. eh…

    are you talking about: Central Virginia Food Bank | FeedMore ?

    I’m a little confused also….

    the CVFB is affiliated with food pantries across Va and I’m not sure if it is the primary food bank in Richmond or if there is a subordinate org for Richmond itself.

    also… keep in mind when we talk about government and NGOs that in the food pantry case – the USDA is fairly heavily involved – has rules… requires those who distribute USDA to check that recipients are qualified, etc.

    but I’m glad to hear you are going to write about it – and just hope it’s not tilted ideologically but just deals with the facts, good, bad and ugly, etc.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Nutmeg works well for spice

  9. spice? God NO! Greens have their own distinct pungent flavor even without ham/bacon but they complement it not change the taste of it.

    It’s is an outrage against mankind to “adulterate” …. greens…

    REAL SOUTHERNERS don’t “adulterate” (but they very much do fornicate).

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You are stuck in the past

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