Why Tricycle Gardens Rocks

Photo credit: Tricycle Gardens

by James A. Bacon

Everyone has heard the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” With a little tweaking, the aphorism could well be adapted to the philosophy of Tricycle Gardens, the urban farming nonprofit that I profiled in “Oasis in the Food Desert“: Give a man a tomato and you feed him for a day. Teach him to grow his own, and you feed him for a lifetime.

A lot of well-meaning people are worried about the poor nutrition of Americans in general and inner-city dwellers in particular. Obesity is epidemic, along with associated chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes and arthritis. The traditional model for feeding the poor — food stamps, soup kitchens, and the like — don’t seem to be working. In that model, middle-class taxpayers and church goers give to the poor and ask nothing of the recipients. The consequence is that poor people in America are better fed but not necessarily healthier.

Tricycle Gardens is not a charity in the traditional sense. It doesn’t breed dependency. Its mission is to bring wholesome, healthy fruits, herbs and vegetables to residents of the inner city who don’t have easy access to grocery stores. But the social enterprise hands out relatively little free produce. It s purpose is to encourage people to start their own back-yard plots and community gardens. Tricycle Gardens is really in the business of dispensing knowledge and its goal is to encourage self reliance and self sufficiency.

Compare that to a recent Virginia Department of Social Services initiative to encouraging food stamp recipients to eat healthier food. Instead of dispensing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to everyone on the same day, the department will break recipients into four groups that receive their benefits on different days so families can access fresh food before it sells out.

“Our hope is that our customers will have better access to healthy and nutritious food choices when they shop,” said Social Services spokesman Pat Karney, as quoted by WTVR.  “Hopefully this will allow the retail community to adequately restock shelves at the first of the month and spread out the demand for the product over the first several days of the month.”

I find it hard to imagine that Social Services is striking at the root of the problem but I suppose it’s worth a try. At least the department is trying something different.

I also don’t know if Tricycle Gardens can change the dietary culture of Richmond’s inner city. The program is a work in progress. But I expect it will make a bigger difference in the long run than tweaking the SNAP program. As Executive Director Sally Schwitters observes, people who raise garden foods become more invested in the food. They take pleasure of eating what they have grown.

Not many people take pleasure in a hand-out.

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  1. Actually the SNAP program which I believe uses debt-type cards COULD impact dietary habits.

    With the advent of everything having a scan code, SNAP is already set up to not pay for certain things. Why not provide a separate credit that is good ONLY for Fresh food?

    Bacon says this: ” I also don’t know if Tricycle Gardens can change the dietary culture of Richmond’s inner city. The program is a work in progress. But I expect it will make a bigger difference in the long run than tweaking the SNAP program.”

    So I’d challenge him on the idea that voluntary programs work better than govt programs.

    If you are going to have SNAP ANYHOW then why not configure it similar to the way that reduced or free school lunches are and restrict what SNAP can pay for to only “healthy” or “fresh” foods?

    I note that up my way, SNAP was recently allowed to pay for farmers market food.

    The other thing I would advocate is a reward system for setting up food cooperatives for fresh food and produce in so -called food “deserts” .

    The idea would be to provide assistance for volunteer efforts at actually building food cooperatives – much like the govt and business already work together for food banks.

    One of my pet complaints is that we have a lot of govt and charity programs already in place but they are often “stove-piped” and that’s especially true with the charities – each of whom has staked out some territory that is operated independently of other programs – even programs that are natural partners.

    I give an example of a food pantry that is operated independently of another food pantry – with no cross-checking of recipients to ensure that people are not taking more than they are entitled to. This may not sound like a problem until one realizes that in doing that, other people in need do not get their share and so yet another govt program or charity gins up to try to fill the void

    I’d like to see these charities operate under one umbrella clearing house and to reduce redundancy of program efforts and to coordinate their aid efforts so to maximize their effectiveness and benefits and reduce redundancy and entitlement abuse.

    AND I would like to see REQUIRED volunteer work for the people who are benefiting.

    It takes many hands for a food pantry to work. Why are the “volunteers” often people who are not receiving entitlements but just donating their time? People on entitlements NEED to WORK – not as some punitive act but because there is respect and honor in doing a job and people want and need that in order for them to want to go further… stepping stones.

    Tricycle Gardens are a wonderful innovation especially in their efforts to draw kids in to the idea of growing food and becoming involved in looking after one’s own needs.

    1. Larry, I agree that SNAP *could* have a huge influence on dietary habits … but not through tweaking the existing system. To have a major influence, SNAP would have to severely curtail the types of food the government will pay for, just as you suggest. Fritos, no. Tomatoes, yes. Twinkies, no. Brocolli, yes. But that would require a radical restructuring of the program and it would undoubtedly would get a lot of pushback.

      On the other hand, the idea makes so much sense that one must ask, why the heck hasn’t someone proposed it?

  2. I’d also like to provide an example of just how many different govt programs there are to help people.

    It’s a CATO publication and they do have an agenda but someone went through the trouble to list out the actual program and it begins on page 11,

    take a quick look and be prepared to be amazed …..

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Government programs often produce huge changes in behavior. Unfortunately, those changes in behavior are often counter-productive. Can anybody doubt that the government programs to encourage home ownership created more American home owners? So, I would like to hear from some actual grocers as to why they don’t locate in food deserts before deciding that spreading out the SNAP payments will help correct the situation. It seems like a good idea but, then again, so did widespread home ownership.

    As a person who was heavily involved in outreach programs in Anacostia, Washington, DC – I can say that scale needs to be a consideration. Our group ran a tutoring, summer jobs and mentorship program for students at Anacostia High School in DC. We made a difference to the students with whom we worked but we never reached enough students to make a difference to Anacostia overall. Some of our kids went on to great college programs at places like Stanford and the University of Maryland. Two of our students were murdered in gang-related violence. The problems of the inner city are deep and not easily understood by those who live outside the inner city.

    In retrospect, I think the money we raised would have been better spent had it been more focused. We tried to cover too much of the waterfront. I think we could have had a bigger impact on the community by focusing on summer jobs and college admissions. Since our students were self-selecting (they had to volunteer for the program) we tended to get motivated students. Many of these kids had the brains to go to college but had given up hope of ever getting there. They didn’t understand the admissions process, they didn’t understand the financial aid available. They also tended to miss opportunities to build their college applications with decent summer jobs.

    We should have had more high schools in the program and we should have focused exclusively on getting motivated students decent summer jobs and helping them apply to college, the military or trade school. Instead, we tried to build a full service community center that would have provided deep outreach for a relatively few students. In the end, the recession cratered our ability to raise funds and we had to sell the building we intended to use for the community center.

    I wonder about Tricycle Gardens when it comes to scale. It seems that the urban gardens are more of a “loss leader” than the solution itself. Certainly, the ability to attract children to the gardens to see vegetables being grown brings the children to an environment where they can learn. If schools can be persuaded to make a trip to Tricycle Gardens part of a field trip – all the better. Now you have an audience of people who are willing to learn. Is the best use of the time when you have the people an attempt to get some of the people to learn how to grow their own food? Or, is the best use of the time when you have the kids a chance to impart a bit of nutritional education? In my experience, it’s easy to say “both”. However, in a world where time and money are always constrained, “both” may be a mistake.

    Shouldn’t the real goal of Tricycle Gardens revolve around bringing grocery stores to the food deserts? If so, the key seems to be changing the demand for various types of food. Per Jim Bacon, a lack of demand for fresh vegetables is an inhibitor to grocery stores locating in the food deserts. Presumably, an increase in demand for fresh vegetables would encourage more stores to open. That would make better food accessible to everybody – not just those with the time, energy and inclination to grow their own food.

    The SNAP program changes seem like a “no brainer”. Spreading out the purchase of food over a month should make it easier and more profitable for grocery stores to operate in the feed deserts.

    So, after quite a ramble – what is the real mission to Tricycle Gardens? To teach a small percentage of Richmonders to become semi-self sufficient farmers or to bring grocery stores back into the food deserts? I’d suggest that the former goal is a limited in impact while the latter goal would make a real difference. And the latter goal requires more than just urban gardens. It also requires that the real reasons for the lack of grocery stores be understood. It requires that changes to things like the SNAP program be considered. Most of all, it is measurable. There are currently 19 census tracts in Richmond that classify as food deserts. Would it be possible to lower that number to “under 10” within 10 years? If so, that would make a real difference.

    1. Can’t remember if I mentioned this in a previous comment… Tricycle Gardens is planning to conduct a campaign this fall/winter/spring to persuade more corner stores and convenience stores in Richmond’s food desert areas to stock fresh produce. The first step entails reaching out to these small merchants and understanding what drives their business decisions. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with.

  4. On the other hand, the idea makes so much sense that one must ask, why the heck hasn’t someone proposed it?

    I dunno but I have absolutely no problem with SNAP being more draconian if it is a entitlement/transfer payment.

    Taxpayers should not be paying for Fritos or other “empty” calories and if we really wanted to get into social engineering, we’d make 1/2 of it spendable only for healthy foods….

    ya’ll should look at that CATO doc – page 11

    it’s a real eye opener… we have dozens, hundreds of programs that appear to require – each one an office/agency in Washington and a corporate infrastructure to administer. I do understand where the tea party is coming from these days.

  5. DJ and I probably disagree more than we agree across the spectrum of issues but on this we seem to be tracking similarly.

    He’s looking for a real mission with real measurable goals – as opposed to putting time on task towards a “good thing”.

    so we’re both a bit skeptical as to the actual goal and whether or not there is a realistic chance of achievement or even partial success.

    Myself, I like to see programs that leverage off of and coordinate with existing govt and private programs rather than yet another stand-alone stovepipe effort requiring separate administrative support and yet another fish looking for food in the govt grant sea or for that matter competing against other charities for the same local charitable funding pie.

    A business plan which outlines what constitutes “success” AND what constitutes failure –

    A staffing chart and a person responsible for recruiting not just warm bodies of folks looking for something to do, but qualified personnel for the specified positions.

    And PLEASE tell me that you did NOT form so that you could compete for a new category of Dept of Ag “food desert” grants programs.

  6. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Why Tricycle Gardens Rocks:

    George Will in Aug. 3 Wash Post reports that in 1980 the NFL sported three 300+ linemen. Today more than 350 NFL linemen exceed 300 pounds. And today all men who play more that 5 years in the NFL can expect to live less that 60 years. Linemen can expect to live substantially fewer than 60 years. washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-f-will-footballs-problem

    So the NFL system that builds men bigger, stronger, faster also builds profoundly unhealthy men: weak men built to crash and die far sooner that otherwise.

    It reminds me of the late 1960’s when the US government declared War on Poverty.

    Fifty years, and trillions of dollars later, that War on Poverty has destroyed millions of American Families. That War on Poverty has created millions of mothers without husbands in their lives. That War on Poverty has created millions of children without fathers in the lives. That War on Poverty has created millions of parents without jobs in the lives. And now our Children die from a new kind of starvation: obesity born of broken families, broken hearts, lost souls, and gloss neglect, much of it funded by taxpayer dollars.

    Private Enterprise – our great Capitalist System – shares equal blame. Our mass food retailers design Happy Meals that undermine the health of children and their parents as surely as the NFL undermines the health of its Linemen. Calorie laden, nutrition deprived, much of it is aimed at children and built to addict those who consume it.

    In short, we are now making and marketing food, and government programs too, like we used to build and market cigarettes.

    However small, Tricycle Gardens is fighting back. God Bless all involved.

  7. Richard Avatar

    Tricycle Gardens sounds great. It’s not going to make a whole community healthier, but it seems like it would be a great outlet and learning place for the younger kids – like a boys or girls club – but with an emphasis on science and health. Plus it beautifies and makes better the community environment. And it doesn’t seem like it would very expensive – no so many bricks and mortar (and constant fundraising that that requires).

  8. I’m a bit conflicted by the concept – still. It’s hard to be critical of any effort to improve the lives and health of any community. But.. I’d be much more comfortable with efforts that come from within and are supported by the community rather than external efforts to “help”.

    I think efforts that are truly community-based with volunteers from the community are going to be more sustainable and my nose gets out of joint a bit when folks outside the community decide that the community needs “help” especially in areas such as obesity where we have a demographically-neutral problem with obesity and yet we are aiming this at the “disadvantaged” ostensibly because they live in a “good food desert” and yet we all know that it’s not the “desert” that is the real issue so I find some juxtaposition in context that bothers me.

    People, ALL of us, have to start taking more responsibility for our own failings – such as eating too much and we need to stop blaming it on other factors, Jeeesus H, Keeerist – there are kids who are starving to death in the world and we’re a country of lardies blaming our bellies on things that really have little to do with the real issue.

  9. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    In my experience, the art and craft to building and running an effective and high impact community non-profit typically require ingredients such as.

    1/ A strong core concept that offers many possibilities to meet critical public need.

    B/ Strong leader(s) deeply committed to their own excellent Strategic Vision. “Strong” defined as Seriously Practical, Highly Imaginative, Charismatic and Persuasive Team Builders, devoted to hard real world solutions that show results.

    C/ These are people who often build an effective machine out of whole cloth. Typically they do it by constant trial and error. They demand, they cajole, they tinker, and they adapt. They use what works, toss out the rest. They constantly refine. They constantly look for and exploit new opportunities. They’d sometimes dealmakers. Leaders who can build alliances, coalitions, partnerships, often by finding common ground that others fail to see, and thereafter are capable of joining forces, and working, with a wide variety of partners and sponsors (incl. for profit.)

    D/ Often too, every activity of such leaders is in its way “a pilot program,” offering insights into better ways to do and even expand the mission.

    E/ Most importantly, these types of people demand programs that “Touch Someone.” That is they demand Programs that offers the participant a direct experience. One that carries sufficient force (cognitive, emotional, revelatory) to have a reasonable chance to positively impact behavior and understanding – like what a student might experience in the class of a great high school teacher. (Or, to use a more vivid example, like a Marine DJ at Paris Island “Touches Someone.”)

    Of course, this is done in many different ways. But, after reading about Tricycle Gardens on their web site and Bacon’s Rebellion, it appears to me that these folks, based on their track record to date, have the Look of First Class, the stuff to make substantial impact. For example, look at the variety of their initiatives to date, and how they operate within a network of partners within and outside the “whole food movement.” How that includes strong local community partners as magnets and sponsors, and consider their new fall initiative into local commercial outlets.

    Most importantly, consider the potential result. How an effective mentor, when he places a small seed into the hand of an urban child (whether rich or poor), sets up a chain of reactions. Telling that child what that seed will do with that child’s help and care. Then imagine having the child do the work and gain the understanding to bring that seed into fruition, to feed her family, to sell, to blend into another exotic meal, or graft into hybrid – the possibilities are endless. And so is the potential for magic. That single seed throughout its life can plant many more seeds that bloom in the mind and emotions of that child. How exciting, Touching Someone that way.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      PS edit – Marine DI (Drill Instructor) as opposed to DJ (Disk Jockey)

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