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“Fresh Food Heroes” Rescue Ribicoff
by Melissa Bailey | Jun 11, 2012 8:12 am
Posted to: Environment, Food, Schools, West Rock
The collard greens disappeared years ago. Now a team of “heroes” is heading to a West Rock elderly complex to bring them back—by revamping a garden and delivering freshly harvested fruits and vegetables to seniors’ doors.
Students at Common Ground High School, an environmental-themed magnet school in West Rock, outlined that mission in a presentation at the school this week. The eight high school seniors spent the last two-thirds of their school year studying food insecurity.
They came up with a student-run business called Fresh Food Heroes that aims to bring fresh food to soup kitchens and to their neighbors just down the street at the Abraham Ribicoff Cottages, a 100-unit senior citizen public-housing complex tucked away behind the fast-rising Brookside development.
The Heroes plan to restore Ribicoff’s defunct community garden and bring in produce from the Common Ground farm on a new “mobile market.” The market-on-wheels, housed in a trailer on the back of a Honda Pilot SUV, will sell fresh fruit and vegetables at Ribicoff beginning in July, organizers said. Common Ground teamed up with local not-for-profit CitySeed, which runs five farmers markets in town, to raise money for the venture.
As part of their senior project, four of the Common Ground seniors focused on food insecurity among the elderly. They learned about obstacles to getting fresh fruit and veg: such as transportation, physical ailments, education and cost. Poor nutrition exposes seniors to greater risk of infection, cognitive disorders and chronic illness, reported senior Alejandro Meran (at right in photo).
But, Alejandro noted, intervention with nutritious food can prevent diseases. The students studied the issue nationwide—3 million elderly people are food insecure nationwide—then narrowed the issue down to their backyard. The students determined New Haven has about 1,600 food-insecure seniors—many of whom live nearby at Ribicoff.
They took a trip down the street and surveyed seniors on their food needs.
Collard greens, turnips, and grapes topped seniors’ wish lists on the surveys.
“I love vegetables,” said one survey-taker, 68-year-old Minnie Harris (pictured at the top of this story). “Cucumbers and squash—zucchini squash—ooh, I love them.”
Harris took advantage of a sunny interval Wednesday to get out a big pair of orange-handled clippers and snip the weeds away from the lilies and rose bushes in her front yard.
Harris said she looks forward to the students cutting down the wild weeds that have overrun the Ribicoff community garden (pictured).
Harris, who has lived at Ribicoff for a dozen years, said the garden used to grow cucumbers, collard greens, string beans and lettuce.
“We had a beautiful garden,” said Harris. But two problems arose: Seniors couldn’t take care of it. And when the vegetables did grow, neighbors from the Brookside projects would steal them, she said.
“They came up here in the night and took them,” she recalled. After the thefts, she said, “we just gave up.”
Harris said she and her neighbors welcomed two offers the students made: To fix up and maintain the garden, and to bring produce to sell. Seniors at the remote complex—which is cut off from neighboring Hamden by a notorious fence—don’t always have a way to get fresh food. A monthly food pantry focuses on non-perishables.
Back at Common Ground, senior Rashawna Peterson outlined several other plans in store for the Heroes. Plans include bringing seniors to a cooking demonstration at the school, complete with dancing and music, and releasing a cookbook.
The students set a goal to set aside 10 percent of the produce from the school farm (pictured) to be donated to the food insecure. That includes the elderly at Ribicoff, as well as people dining at soup kitchens around town. Getting fresh produce to emergency food providers was the focus of a second group of four seniors who helped plan the Fresh Food Heroes business.
Because they are all graduating this year, the eight seniors will pitch the business to underclassmen in a meeting next week. Thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Merck Family Fund, the school will be able to pay students to run the garden at Ribicoff, help grow extra food for the program, and run educational programs, according to Joel Tolman, Common Ground’s director of development and community engagement.
The Heroes will get a $2,000 boost from the federal government. That’s because Principal Liz Cox (pictured handing out carnations), who co-teaches the senior seminar, won a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators last week from the Environmental Protection Agency. The award, one of only 18 allotted nationally, comes with $2,000 towards Cox’s professional development and $2,000 towards the school.
Student Joshua Cintron (at left in photo, and featured here making pedal-powered smoothies at a 2010 school event) said the students plan to hit the Ribicoff garden next week.
The mobile market should get start making weekly visits to Ribicoff in July, according to CitySeed director Nicole Berube.
Berube said the concept has been something CitySeed was looking into as a way to extend the reach of its five farmers markets. CitySeed runs “community-supported market” programs that hand-deliver bagged produce to pockets of the city that don’t have access to the markets. CitySeed tried that at Ribicoff, she said, but found that the seniors wanted more flexibility.
“When people don’t have choice about what they’re buying, it tends to not be as attractive,” Berube said. She said the market model—where seniors will get to buy just what they want, in a store setting, may be a more successful option at that spot.
Berube said in addition to selling Common Ground’s produce, CitySeed will stock the mobile market with food purchased from other farms. Through a grant with a not-for-profit called Wholesome Wave, customers will be able to double the value of their food stamps when buying fresh fruit and vegetables at the stand.
In addition to Ribicoff, the mobile market plans to hit West River and Newhallville, Berube said. CitySeed tried a farmers market in West River, but determined another method of delivery might work better. The organization has requested some $11,000 in federal block grant money to support the venture in its first year.
Berube stood in the back of a packed cafeteria for students’ presentations Wednesday.
“I was really excited to see what the kids have done today,” she said. “Their ability to understand a fairly complex food system was very impressive. Their ownership over what they want to do will greatly impact this program and its future success.”
Back at Ribicoff, neighbor Linda Gray welcomed the help. The community garden there is a mess, she said: “It look like a jungle.”
Between snips of her weed-clippers, Minnie Harris awaited the Heroes’ return.
“Y’all hurry up with those vegetables,” she urged.