Two programs get fresh summer produce to appreciative residents

Theresa Hardin, left, and Heather Young selected tomatoes at the Fresh Stop Market in the parking lot at New Beginnings Church on Bryan Avenue.
Theresa Hardin, left, and Heather Young selected tomatoes at the Fresh Stop Market in the parking lot at New Beginnings Church on Bryan Avenue. Herald-Leader

On a recent warm summer afternoon in a pavilion near the corner of Third and Midland, people moved from table to table picking out fresh, locally grown produce. It looked like a small farmers market, but it wasn’t exactly. This was a Fresh Stop Market, set up by the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition.

The markets — one at 560 East Third Street and another at 845 Bryan Avenue — are set up more like co-ops, with customers buying shares ahead of time. The money is pooled to boost buying power from local farmers.

And one big advantage: The markets sell shares on a sliding scale, so customers on food stamps pay less.

“This is a great place,” said Anna Meeker, who lives on Eddie Street. “It lets people with WIC (Women, Infants and Children benefits) and food stamps come out and get fresh fruit and vegetables, and get eggs, for $6 or $12. ... If you go in the grocery store, a head of lettuce like this is close to $2.”

The idea was pioneered by New Roots in Louisville, which branched out to Lexington last year and to Western Kentucky this year. The goal is to take the model national. Already the results have been dramatic, said Jeremy Porter, the new director of the Tweens Coalition as of July 1.

Last year’s market in the Castlewood neighborhood bought and distributed more than $9,000 in produce from a dozen farms, Porter said. Statewide, Fresh Stop Markets moved $100,000 in produce to 2,000 families, supporting 50 farmers last year, he said.

On a given week, 40 to 50 shares are sold in advance at each Lexington market, giving dozens of families the chance to eat healthfully for less. And more are signing up every week.

Anita Franklin, president of the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, sold several shares on a recent evening to people who just happened upon the market.

That’s kind of how Ivania Montiel found her way. “I discovered the Fresh Stop Market last season on Castlewood but only made it to the last two,” she said. Montiel told some friends, and this past spring, she called a meeting at her house to explain how the market worked.

That’s because it isn’t always easy persuading people to pay up front, she said. But it worked, and now her mother, Decideria Montiel Noguera, who is visiting this summer from Veracruz, Mexico, has been recruiting people at church.

The market works because people get fresh produce at very reasonable prices. And tending each table is a neighbor who can talk up the carrots, the collards, the kohlrabi or whatever the produce may be.

Each market also features a cooking demo using some of the vegetables, so even if the customers aren’t sure what to do with kohlrabi, after a sample and a little instruction, many buy in.

Montiel and her mother did. They tried the kohlrabi sautéed with ginger and garlic prepared by Tanya Whitehouse of the UK Food Connection. Noguera fixed the white stems Montiel’s way, then used the green leafy part in a salad with cilantro, peppers and chilies, her way.

The market illustrates that it’s a myth that people of limited means prefer to eat junk food, Porter said. People want fresh food; often, they just can’t afford it.

By framing the issue as “fresh food is a basic human right,” which is the New Roots slogan, Porter said, the focus isn’t on what people shouldn’t eat but rather on what they deserve to eat.

The Tweens Coalition also has worked with corner stores in the East End to find ways to make more fresh produce available. For 2 1/2 years, they sold produce from local farmers.

“Food access, particularly fresh food, correlates to reduced levels of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health issues,” he said. “So we focus on bringing the fresh produce into the stores where people already go.”

The Tweens Coalition partnered to develop Good Neighbor Stores, including the Lexington East End Market at Race and Third streets. Produce sales rose dramatically, but even with subsidized purchases, the fruit and vegetables were often loss leaders, just as they are for even the biggest retailers.

So this year, they are trying a different strategy: The Tweens Coalition has teamed up with Glean KY, which once a week brings fresh produce directly to two stores in the East End, and it’s available for free to anyone.

In four weeks, they’ve given away more than 3,000 pounds to eager customers.

One weekday, just before noon, the Glean Ky van pulled up to the East End Market, and staffers began unloading boxes of squash, peppers, heirloom tomatoes, cantaloupes, cherries, potatoes, onions, bananas and more. In some cases, the items were packaged, pre-chopped or even prepared items.

“Is that guacamole in there?” one woman asked.

Another customer coming in the door asked, “Are y’all giving this away for free?”

Barbara Wright, who lives in the neighborhood, happened to be shopping when the produce arrived. “My girlfriend told me about it, but I forgot,” she said. She quickly filled a bag with fresh vegetables.

What does she plan to do with it? “Eat it,” she said, eyebrows raised.

Janice Lewis, who also lives nearby and likes to cook, especially healthy food, comes every week.

“Some of this stuff is stuff I couldn’t afford,” Lewis said. She estimated that she picked up about $60 worth of produce that morning.

“They do a good thing with this. I’m grateful. I try to tell my other neighbors to come but they’re shy. I’m not shy. The word is just now getting around.”

Within a couple of hours, the fresh produce was mostly gone. Lewis said that all of hers would be cooked and eaten by the next Monday.

Would more people come if more produce was available? “Of course,” Lewis said.

The Tweens Coalition is hoping to set up more venues for both the Good Neighbor Store distributions and for the Fresh Stop Markets, Porter said.

“This just ballooned on us so quickly, in ways we didn’t expect,” Porter said. “We weren’t surprised people were interested in fresh produce, but we were surprised how quickly it would go.”

The produce for the Good Neighbor stores come from Lucky’s, which opened in Lexington in January.

Lexington store director Toby Truitt said that the store has donated an average of about 700 to 800 pounds of food a day since opening. All of the produce goes to Glean KY to distribute; all of the non-produce items go to the Hope Center.

“As long as the product is going to worthy causes, this will go on indefinitely,” Truitt said. But the amounts may get smaller as the store matures in the market.

“We are deeply committed to creating lasting, positive impact in the communities we serve,” Lucky’s spokeswoman Elisabeth Warner wrote in an email. “One of the easiest ways we can do that is to make sure the food that we can’t sell, because it’s still good but maybe not as pretty as we’d like, is donated to an organization that can help get it to our community.

“In our other stores, those groups are typically food pantries, but Lexington is extra special because we have GleanKY here, whose express purpose is to gather and redistribute food that otherwise would be wasted. ... We’re incredibly proud to be part of this. Our motto is ‘good food for all,’ and we mean it!”