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BJC School Outreach supports access to fresh produce

by Kathy Bretsch • kathy.bretsch@bjc.org

SOYD Produce StandBJC | In some communities, access to an abundance of fresh foods and produce is something many take for granted. In stark contrast, there are other communities where grocery choices are limited to corner stores and gas stations. For some living in these communities, a quick run for fresh food simply doesn’t exist, and a journey for produce on public transit may take an hour or more with multiple transfers.

The Healthy Schools Healthy Communities (HSHC) initiative, funded by Missouri Foundation for Health, is a partnership with BJC School Outreach and Youth Development (SOYD) and Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS). Together, the partners are addressing the lack of access to fresh food and produce in the City of St. Louis. HSHC brings together schools, community organizations, businesses, parents and residents to identify and advocate for changes that increase access to healthy food and physical activity where kids and families live, learn and play.

Partnering with Good Life Growing, an urban farm in St. Louis’ Greater Ville neighborhood, the partners have helped establish a weekly produce stand that provides access to fresh vegetables and fruits year-round.

Good Life Growing volunteer Matt Stoyanov helps Caroline Moore pick out produce at the group’s weekly produce stand. Through the Healthy Schools Healthy Communities initiative, BJC School Outreach and Youth Development, St. Louis Public Schools and the Missouri Foundation for Health are working with Good Life Growing to address the lack of access to fresh food in St. Louis neighborhoods. The groups have established a weekly produce stand that provides access to fresh vegetables and fruits year-round. “The produce stand is simple, just a table with a pop-up shade tent, serving a very important need,” says Erica Oliver, BJC SOYD community health partner. “The neighbors have responded in a big way. The stand sells out of produce 87 percent of the time.”

“When we think about how BJC HealthCare improves the health and well-being of the communities we serve, the HSHC initiative is one project that allows us to listen, engage and plan actionable changes with the residents and community leaders,” says Diana Wilhold, BJC SOYD director. “These changes have been incremental, and yet we have noticed a change from a ‘we can’t’ mindset to a ‘we can’ mindset, with a little help from our community friends.”

In the greater St. Louis area, one of every six individuals lives in poverty and struggles with hunger, including more than 172,000 children, according to Operation Food Search. Fresh vegetables and fruits play an important role in the long-term health of individuals and communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children who eat a healthy diet are more likely to:

  • maintain a healthy body weight

  • have higher grades in school

  • show improved cognitive function

  • reduce their risk for chronic illness

There are a number of neighborhoods less than 2.5 miles from the Washington University Medical Campus that are described as food deserts. Plagued with high unemployment and low median income, families have limited access to fresh food choices.

On Sarah Street at Evans Avenue, north of Page Avenue, a once-vacant, 1-acre lot emerges as an urban oasis, an abundance of crops growing in neatly organized beds and hoop houses, which are similar to greenhouses. Crops can be grown in a hoop house year-round but without a heater or ventilation fan.

Every Sunday morning for more than a year, volunteers and farm employees, many of whom live in the neighborhood, harvest ripe produce for the stand. Run by volunteers, the stand opens at noon and continues until the produce runs out or until 4 p.m.

James Forbes, the unassuming CEO of Good Life Growing, was introduced to Wilhold at a community meeting. His farm was producing more than enough to support a stand at Soulard Market and supply several upscale restaurants. He says it didn’t feel quite right that he farmed in a food desert and the community wasn’t benefiting.

“The neighbors want healthy food for themselves and their kids,” Forbes adds. “They just weren’t able to get it. People load up on unhealthy food, and the convenient food is not actually cheap. It adds up over the long run, and it adds to medical bills and prescriptions.”

The discussion, with support from Alderman Samuel Moore, evolved into a partnership that led to the creation of the weekly produce stand at a high-traffic intersection adjacent to the farm. The HSHC grant helps to offset the cost of the produce, so it can be offered at an affordable cost. The produce stand is one way the partnership is trying to help change the trajectory of food access in the Greater Ville neighborhood.

“Kids will develop lifelong habits, so if the corner store has very few healthy choices, poor food choices become a habit,” says Brittanie McMullen, BJC SOYD community health partner. “We work to connect families with resources, including affordable, healthy food and recipes.”

In April, a second produce stand opened at Cote Brilliante Community Center, also supplied and supported by volunteers through Good Life Growing. A third stand is in the works for the Carr Square Youth and Family Center (YFC), supplied by Good Life Growing and facilitated by YFC staff. Oliver says the Healthy Schools Healthy Communities partnership is a great example of how public and private organizations can work together to have a sustainable and long-lasting impact.

“Now that relationships have been established, continued collaboration could lead to an incredible amount of sustainable and needed impact on overall health in the communities in which we serve,” Oliver adds.

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