Grant opens way for produce in Richmond

Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (Oct. 27, 2015) — A steady stream of customers moved in and out of the Sunoco gas station Food Mart on the east side of Jefferson Davis Highway last week, and a few stared at the refrigerated glass case of locally grown produce labeled, priced and resting near the front door.
It contained onions, pears, apples, oranges and other fruits and vegetables.
It was placed there by the city government, strategically and after some study, to supplement the diet of residents living in this largely poor south Richmond neighborhood along the highway, which separates the residents from a drab industrial corridor.
“It pretty much has been a complete success,” said Hannah Robbins, who oversees the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, as she passed out fliers for an event related to the produce this week.
The gas station is one of 20 stores the city has worked with over the last two years through the initiative to bring local produce to city residents.
The USDA also awarded the program $100,000 this month to expand the number of participating stores and the number of local farmers supplying them with produce for sale.
The city plans to expand the initiative to 30 additional so-called corner stores and gas station marts over the next two years, Robbins said. How exactly that’s achieved — getting more participating farmers, for instance — remains under consideration, Robbins said, though the grant has already paid for an additional employee with one of the program’s suppliers, Shalom Farms, a nonprofit operation on six acres in Goochland roughly 40 miles northwest of the city.
Richmond doesn’t have a vibrant inner-city agricultural community, and, so far, the initiative supplies its stores with produce from Shalom and one other urban farm, both of which are dedicated to the same goals as the initiative — eliminating so-called “food deserts” or areas where residents don’t easily have access to healthy food, including produce. But the city is seeking partnerships with other farms of all varieties, Robbins said. Likely those defined as “local” or within 100 miles of the city center.
“We’re hoping that we can bring on farms that are excited to do this program rather than they feel compelled to do this program,” she said.
The new Shalom employee, Dannon Wilson, its healthy retail specialist, was with Robbins at the Sunoco station to pass out fliers about the produce event.
She previously worked for the city health department in Petersburg.
Among her job duties, she said, is interacting with customers.
“They tell me, ‘We want more plums. Can you get more plums for us? Can you get pears for us?’” she said. “They say, ‘It’s good to see you all in the community.’”
The city started the initiative to attack some of the more troubling aspects of the health of its residents, Robbins said. The city’s overall obesity rate was about 30 percent in 2013 while the statewide rate was about 27 percent.
The disparity is more troubling when filtering those numbers through race. Nearly 24 percent of white city residents are obese. About 37 percent of black residents are obese, according to the city’s application for the USDA grant. It gets worse when those numbers are filtered through income.
About 40 percent of residents who make less than $35,000 a year are obese, compared to 19 percent of those making more than $75,000.
The program costs the city about $3,000 per store, Robbins said.
A recent review of the program showed it had provided city residents with more than 22,000 servings of healthy produce since its start.
Several residents said they appreciated the idea of selling healthy produce at corner stores such as the gas station.
“I think that’ll work,” said Mona Dickerson, a city resident who said she’d purchase produce from the Sunoco after learning it was sold there. “Everybody sells canned goods anyway.”