Merlene Davis: Initiative hopes to make eating healthy easier in East End 'food desert'

I grew up on the western edge of Owensboro, one house away from the end of the city's paved streets. Beyond that point was a rocky road and farmland.

Our family had only one car, which was used by my father to get to and from work, but there were vendors and peddlers who would announce their presence as they slowly walked or drove down our street. They were selling vegetables, fruit or fish, harvested or caught that morning and sold to my mother and other housewives before noon.

I'm not sure when the peddlers stopped selling goods on our street, but it probably was when we finally could afford two automobiles, giving my mother access to groceries that were miles from our home.

The term "food desert" hadn't been coined yet, but that's exactly how my old neighborhood could be described. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "food desert" as a low-income census tract in which residents have little access to a supermarket or grocery store.

In a modern food desert, unlike the one of my childhood, processed foods can be readily available, but fresh fruit and vegetables are not, at least not at affordable prices.

And that is how a neighborhood northeast of downtown Lexington can be described today.

Food Works East End, an initiative of the Blue Grass Community Foundation funded by a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant, is taking steps to change that.

Steve Austin, vice president of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, said about 4,000 people live in the East End — an area roughly bounded by Short Street, Elm Tree Lane, Seventh Street and Midland Avenue/Winchester Road — where there is "an appalling lack of healthy food choice."

That area has the lowest rate of car ownership in Lexington, putting residents at the mercy of small stores that offer processed foods, he said. And public transportation can be cumbersome for some people, especially the elderly.

The Knight Foundation's $52,000 grant will fund the project, which will put a lot of information about healthy foods and nutrition in one spot to benefit residents. A Web site is being built that will offer easy access to information, recipes and a community board that could alert residents to bargains at grocery stores.

For those without Internet access, Austin said, a booklet will be made available containing information on gardening and harvesting, recipes and tips. A phone tree will be set up so residents can hear the information.

That set-up and the information to be made available were gleaned from surveys completed by more than 200 residents.

The eight areas that residents wanted the initiative to address were: how to eat smarter; how to grow their own food; which foods help combat chronic illnesses; recipes; learning how to cook; sharing information via a community forum; where to find fresh, nutritious foods; and organizations that can help with immediate hunger needs.

To get the word out about Food Works and to help residents take a test ride on the Web site, the group is sponsoring Focus on Food on Saturday at the London Ferrill Community Garden on East Third Street. The event is free.

An early version of the Web site will be shown, said Jodie Koch, project coordinator. "And we will be asking the community to look through it and give feedback. We want it to be right."

The Lexington Public Library is providing 10 laptops for residents to use to explore the site, and those who give it a whirl will receive a $10 gift card to Wal-Mart.

Chef Jeremy Ashby and Sylvia Lovely from the Lexington radio show Sunny Side Up will conduct the cooking demonstrations, and smoothies will be made by Berry Pedalers with bike- powered blenders.

Representatives from the anti-hunger organization Seedleaf and the Lexington health department will be available to talk about gardening and nutrition.

For prizes, Whole Foods Market has donated two gift baskets. The Lexington Clinic Foundation has donated the grand prize: the winner's choice of fresh vegetables delivered to his or her door weekly throughout the summer, or a custom-built garden installation. Residents who have completed surveys are eligible for that prize.

"It's about pooling resources that are already there," Koch said, adding that resources could be a peddler-style delivery system for fresh produce or free access to a grocery store.

Although the Web site will be launched and the grant will end in late August or early September, Austin said, the project can remain current for a long time with intermittent updates. He hopes to sign on more partners to expand the project's reach.

"This is the first time the Knight Foundation has funded anything related to food anywhere," Austin said. "This may become a national model, or at least a test case for the rest of Lexington, Kentucky, and the country."

And it starts with neighbors helping neighbors by talking openly about good nutrition and health.