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.