Talk about stepping up to the plate.
Richmond’s Urban Tilth, already a major local player in fighting the health effects of food deserts, has stepped up to the breakfast, lunch and dinner plates of underserved communities during the pandemic. Two programs offer free, organic produce to families and seniors in areas of Richmond and unincorporated North Richmond, where many have little or no access to affordable fresh food—nutritionally more important than ever as people try to stay healthy.
In May, a USDA grant allowed Urban Tilth to create the Farmers to Families FREE Box Program, which delivers weekly boxes of organic produce grown on UT’s own seven school and community gardens and small urban farms, as well as on partner farms. “Members of our regular CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program kept calling. People they knew had lost jobs and needed help. Many of them already had other health issues,” said Urban Tilth Executive Director Doria Robinson.
The grant provided funds, and partners including YES Nature to Neighborhoods, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, ACCE, Building Blocks for Kids, Lifelong Medical Center, Rich City Rides and Communities for a Better Environment helped identify families. The Community Housing Development Corporation helped identify 24 seniors. Farmers to Families now serves nearly 200 households and has delivered more than 5,000 boxes of food.
Isabella Zizi, who co-manages the CSA program, described delivering boxes to residents of the Community Heritage Senior Apartments in North Richmond. “We decided to dress up really nice as a sign of respect to them as we deliver.” The recipients loved it. As for the families, “Parents thank us for giving their kids a chance to eat healthy food,” she said.
“Fruit often doesn’t even make it to the fridge,” Doria Robinson said.
But the USDA grant ran out in August, and although other funders stepped up through the end of 2020, Urban Tilth is asking supporters to raise funds to keep the program going through 2021. (The donation page can be found at www.urbantilth.org/donate/).
Urban Tilth is also supporting communities with its FREE Farm Stands, introduced this fall. Already at maximum capacity for delivering CSA boxes, the organization still had extra produce, so a pop-up Free Farm Stand was set up at Fred Jackson Way and Chesley Avenue in North Richmond every Tuesday, and eventually every Thursday as well. As UT’s Richmond Greenway and school gardens burgeoned with food, another free food stand was established along the Greenway to serve Iron Triangle and Santa Fe neighborhood families.
Currently, the free stands serve approximately 120 Richmond families.
Robinson noted that in addition to providing food for community members, the two programs reduce food waste, continue to provide jobs for Urban Tilth staff and help support local farmers.
Urban Tilth has had to adapt two of its other popular programs during the pandemic. Its GROW! Youth Farm Learning Days program, in which parents brought their kids to the North Richmond farm to learn about growing cycles, “the secret life of plants” and caring for chickens, was tabled due to the new Covid-19 regulations, but will be back at some point.
UT’s Urban Agricultural Academy at Richmond High School successfully continues on Zoom, with UT providing the seeds and materials for “take-home gardens.” Teacher Adam Boisvert wrote this in a recent UT newsletter: “In the classroom, we are teaching students about the earth’s seasonal variation, the impact of climate change on our planet, and how human foodways have evolved over time.” Online cooking demonstrations are a hit. “The kids love showing off what they made,” Robinson said.
“Love” is a word Urban Tilth staff use a lot. “Almost all of us grew up in Richmond, San Pablo or El Cerrito,” Isabella Zizi, co-manager of the CSA program, said. “We are feeding the people we love.”
Learn more about Urban Tilth and its programs, including a planned expansion of the North Richmond farm, at www.urbantilth.org.