Lexington church's produce program shares with those most in need

Produce program shares with those most in need

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comJuly 30, 2012 

  • Fresh Stop brings locally grown produce from Harrison County to tables in downtown Lexington. The program helps people in need to obtain vegetables. Video by Mary Meehan
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    Fresh Stop no longer is accepting new members as the program is well into its season. To learn more, go to FreshStopLex.wordpress.com or call (859) 608-5538.

The service is over at First Presbyterian Church on Market Street, but the Sunday blessings continue for families who are part of Fresh Stop.

The farm-to-table non-profit supplies tomatoes and cabbage, sweet peppers and crunchy onions that fill a table, literally gleaming with freshness. Picked from farmer Rick Courtney's Harrison County field just the day before, the produce comes to church-goers through Fresh Stop — a community supported agriculture program with a charitable twist.

Like a typical CSA program, members sign up to receive fresh produce weekly during the summer growing season. But with Fresh Stop, 25 percent of the members pay a nominal amount because they live in a "food desert," where fresh food is hard to come by, and have lower incomes. To cover the difference, the other 75 percent of members pay slightly more than a CSA normally would cost.

"That's the key," said Libby Iverson, a church member and Fresh Stop member. "We need to share. That's very important."

She said that doesn't hurt the weekly haul for her family, which recently included "some of the sweetest blackberries I have ever had."

"A lot of people do sign up for the mission aspect, and they are happily surprised" by what they get, said Julia Hofmeister, who started the program when she was a student in 2009.

With a major in sustainable agriculture at the University of Kentucky and having been part of the local Community Farm Alliance, Hofmeister heard about a similar program in Cleveland. The first challenge was to find a farmer. That's where Courtney came in. At the time, he was growing some vegetables but had long depended on tobacco for most of his income.

Harrison County was once one of the biggest producers of burley tobacco in the state, and Cynthiana was a major burley marketing hub.

Now a section of his farm on the South Fork of the Licking River is filled with vegetables. On a recent morning, Courtney and a helper harvested 2,500 pounds of tomatoes.

Neighbors provided the blackberries that Iverson loved and other things Courtney doesn't grow.

The first year, there were 30 families. That number has grown to 66, said Andrew Wheeler, a UK senior major in nutrition who took over as Fresh Stop coordinator when Hofmeister went to graduate school in Boston.

Running out of storage at First Presbyterian, the program has branched out to Centenary United Methodist Church and Calvary Baptist Church. The churches serve as pick-up locations for the weekly distribution, but being in Fresh Stop is not limited to church members, Wheeler said. Many of the low-income families served by the program are referred by Habitat for Humanity and Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

Wheeler said one of the biggest concerns in expanding the program is that families often don't know what to do with all the produce they receive.

Over the years, he said, the number of families has fluctuated because people don't always know how to prepare what comes in their weekly baskets.

One of the favorite parts of his job is discovering and sharing tasty, healthy recipes for the produce.

Iverson and others swap tips as they pick up their produce and rave about the meals they created the previous week.

Carolyn McDonald loves when there is cantaloupe or berries in the basket. But, she said, nothing is a disappointment.

"You get what you get," she said. "But it is a good value, it's grown locally and it tastes really good."

Hofmeister said she's humbled that her idea has had such staying power and that so many people have come to support it. Now studying for a graduate degree in business, she can appreciate how all the pieces of Fresh Stop seemed to come together.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," she said with a laugh during a phone interview, "and that was a good thing."

She also thinks the program can be made to work elsewhere. "It is so transferrable," she said.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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