Chipping away at Lexington’s ‘food gap’

This is one of two Fresh Stop Markets in Lexington. It’s in the parking lot at New Beginnings Church on Bryan Avenue in Lexington.
This is one of two Fresh Stop Markets in Lexington. It’s in the parking lot at New Beginnings Church on Bryan Avenue in Lexington. Herald-Leader

Residents of low-income neighborhoods in Lexington are disproving a common assumption on a weekly basis as they line up for fresh vegetables and fruits at corner stores and Fresh Stop Markets.

The enthusiastic demand for fresh food in the East End and Castlewood should inform policy decisions as Kentucky tackles devastating health problems linked to obesity and poor nutrition.

When low-income people fill their carts with empty calories it’s because they can’t afford more healthful alternatives which also are more expensive.

The true cost is staggering, however, because poor nutrition directly contributes to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other disabling and expensive conditions. In Kentucky, health care costs associated with obesity are estimated at $1.2 billion a year. Putting fresh food on more tables is in everyone’s best interest.

You could even say, “Fresh food is a basic human right,” the motto of New Roots, the nonprofit launched in 2009 to help bring healthful food systems to Louisville food deserts and which operates Fresh Stop Markets in Louisville that served as models here.

Coordinating the Lexington markets is the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, which also has helped bring healthier snacks to places where young people gather, including Lexington’s public swimming pools, and promotes physical activity and healthful living.

The markets are a combination of community supported agriculture and farmers market. Consumers buy shares in advance on a sliding scale so customers who qualify for food stamps pay less. As the Herald-Leader’s Janet Patton recently reported, 40 to 50 shares are sold at each of the two Lexington markets each week, giving dozens of families the chance to eat healthfully for less, with more consumers signing up weekly.

Last year, in Kentucky, Fresh Stop Markets moved $100,000 in produce to 2,000 families, supporting 50 farmers.

While the scale is still small, the potential for Kentucky farmers to profit by helping solve the state’s chronic health problems is significant.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes the multiple benefits and is wisely supporting programs that make it affordable for food-stamp recipients to shop at farmers markets.

Also, in Lexington, the Tweens Coalition is teaming up with GleanKy to bring free produce to a couple of corner markets in areas that lack supermarkets. In four weeks, they gave away more than 3,000 pounds to customers who eagerly await the deliveries. Based in Lexington, Glean gathers and redistributes excess food. Lucky’s, the Colorado-based grocery chain that opened in Lexington in January, donates excess produce for the Good Neighbor stores.

Anita Courtney, who founded the Tweens Coalition and was recently succeeded as its director by Jeremy Porter, says Lexington suffers from a wide food gap. “Some of us have the luxury of considering if our food is organic and local while others can’t afford a frozen vegetable.” The food gap contributes to wide health gaps.

While there’s routine controversy over what constitutes a healthy diet — butter is back in good standing, hurray! — no one disputes the merits of a diet rich in fresh veggies and fruit.

Thanks to all the organizations and individuals that are providing more Kentuckians with access to the healthful bounty of our farm fields. Their work could yield broad dividends.

To learn how to participate in Lexington’s Fresh Stop Markets, email freshstopmarkets@gmail.com or call Jeremy Porter at 270-929-7189.