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Produce with a purpose: Local CSAs target low-access communities and empower youth

Takidia Smith with Fresh Beets harvests from her urban acreage..

The impact of CSAs can be seen at the national level, and Grand Rapids is no stranger to impact of these community endeavors. Local CSAs like Fresh Beets and New City Farms are being intentional when determining where to break ground and what communities to serve.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), community supported agriculture, or a CSA, is comprised of “a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.” A 2015 USDA survey reports 7,398 farms in the United States sold products directly to consumers through a CSA, which equated to $226 million (or 7 percent) of the $3 billion in direct-to-consumer sales by farms.

The impact of CSAs is being seen and reported on at a national level, and Grand Rapids is no stranger to the benefits and overall impact of these community endeavors. Local CSAs are being intentional when determining where to break ground and which communities to serve. Drawing from personal needs, a desire to provide exposure to a niche within the workforce, and a goal of improving access to resources for low-access communities, community gardens are poised to have a substantial impact within the community.

Takidia Smith

Takidia Smith is owner and lead grower at Fresh Beets and brought eight years of personal growing experience into the venture, which initially began to meet the need for black growers in Grand Rapids. “I didn’t personally know any [black farmers],” says Smith.

Like many new ideas and initiatives, growing sparked from a personal need for Smith. “In 2008, when the economy collapsed, my husband lost his job. We lost our home. We were one of those families having to choose between bills and food. I got into gardening as a way to supplement my family’s food bills [and] I would share the produce I grew with people around me.”

Brussel sprouts start to bud. As her interest grew, she began furthering her knowledge of the industry and its potential. “It was a lot of research for me. I was trying to make sure that I knew how to grow food in different types of mediums, such as aquaponics, straw bale gardening, and high intensive gardening in very small spaces. Basically, different techniques to maximize growing spaces in urban areas.”

Opened in the spring of 2017, Fresh Beets currently has four plots, all located in southeast Grand Rapids. They serve a diverse clientele, providing them with produce such as squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, salad greens, and carrots.

Fresh Beets seeks to serve more low-access individuals and families. When choosing new locations to farm, Smith says she looks for areas “where residents would [currently] have to drive 15 minutes or more to a quality grocery store.” 

“I picked [this] demographic because they are the ones who don’t have access to quality produce,” she says. In addition to the drive times, some local grocers do not have high quality produce readily available.

A plot of land for growing on the southeast side.

As a resident on the southeast side, these are challenges Smith experienced first-hand. “If I take myself as an example, I want to feed my family healthy fruits and vegetables. I would have to drive all the way to Cascade to get the variety and freshness that I seek. That’s just a problem in the inner city.” She now uses her home backyard as one of the CSA plots.

“I think a lot of the issues we have within our community in terms of our health have to do with us not having access to quality food,” Smith says. To learn more about these potential issues and how to better address them, she is currently conducting research and gathering data.

As a CSA, participation is membership-based. “People sign up for the CSA and pick up their produce every week. Where we’re different from other CSAs [is], I don’t require members to pay up front for the entire season. For the community I am trying to serve, that’s just not an expense that they can afford. Typically, I allow them to pay for three weeks in advance and they go from there,” Smith shares.

Engaging with the community

Housed in the Downtown Market, Malamiah Juice Bar has been in operation for five years. Led in part by Jermale Eddie, co-founder, owner and chief juice innovator, Malamiah currently purchases produce from two CSAs, or urban farms: Urban Roots and New City Farms. “We started doing that a few years back when we decided to shift some of our outgoing [funds] from going out-of-state to keep [them] local,” says Eddie. They currently source produce including leafy greens and wheatgrass from these local farms for their juices and smoothies.

Located in Creston, New City Neighbors has a mission to empower youth to their full potential. According to the 2016 American Community Survey, the Creston neighborhood boasts a population of 31,720, of which, 23.2 percent are under the age of 19. 

Lance Kraai has been with New City Neighbors for seven years and serves as its farm director. One avenue for furthering this mission is though New City Cafe. The Cafe utilizes produce from their CSA, New City Farms, to create soups, wood-fired pizzas, and salads, as well as baked goods from the New City Bakery, which is staffed by middle school students. The Cafe runs from late June until late September. 

Cabbage ripens for the fall harvest.

“Our primary aim was to create good youth programming to serve the youth in our neighborhood. When the farm was started, it was right in the middle of the economy crisis. When we were looking around at what high school students wanted and needed, they wanted good work during the summer,” Kraai says.

Already having experience with programming for middle school-aged children, the farm grew out of the organization’s plans for developing a social enterprise model. “The original idea of summer vacation was students doing agricultural work –– that was the idea behind summer vacation, which we’ve kind of lost as agricultural jobs have kind of disappeared. This [made] sense for our organization to utilize the field and [provide] youth employment for high school students,” says Kraai. Currently, the farm employs 14 students in the summer and provides year-round opportunities for approximately 20 students.

Fresh turnips. As a teenager, Eddie recalls when his mother would grow and sell produce at local farmers markets. “At some point, us kids could not hang out with our friends in the summers until we picked or weeded a certain number of rows of beans. We hated that work, but enjoyed the money that we made at the markets. It was during those times that I really felt how food brings people together. I learned the value of community,” Eddie says.

“One of the reasons we decided to partner with [New City Farms] is their mission and what they do. They teach youths the work ethic of planting, gardening, and harvesting. And then being able to see the product go into the hands of other people or being able to taste something that you grew. We believe in youth employment,” he adds.

Accessing CSA produce

For community members looking to partake in the locally grown produce, they have various options for purchasing shares within the farm. New City Farm offers members either quarter shares, half shares, or full shares. The quarter share is typically intended for an individual, the half can serve two adults, and the full share is intended for a family of four, says Kraai.

“When we surveyed, 50 percent of our customers were within one mile of our farm,” Kraai shares. “All of our customers are within 10 miles.”

“We were one of the first farms within Michigan to be able to accept EBT and Double Up Food Bucks on-site. That allows EBT customers to purchase their CSA share, instead of purchasing it all up-front, they pay on a weekly payment plan,” Kraai says. “The way Double Up Food Bucks works is for every dollar spent using an EBT card, [individuals] get an extra dollar to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables that are Michigan-grown.”

“What we did for two years in a row is purchase CSA [shares] from New City for our staff,” says Eddie. This helped staff members try new produce items, get creative with new ingredients, and have access to fresh, healthy produce.

Looking ahead

As these organizations experience continued growth, they all have their eyes on what’s next.

“My goal is to be able to get two acres of urban space into vegetable production within five years,” says Smith. “This will allow me to serve about 200 families.” To help make their produce more accessible and decrease waste due to failed commitments, Smith is also looking to begin accepting EBT cards and have refrigeration available for storage.
 
For New City Farms, their focus this year and for the upcoming is on how to further support and empower their youths. “What we’ve really been dialing in on this year is building additional curriculum around our youth programs. We hired a full-time high school and college intern director, Danah Montgomery. Danah is looking at how to develop and strengthen our curriculum,” says Kraai.
 
Tomatoes ripen on the vine.

To date, Malamiah has been actively involved with these types of organizations both as a customer and a partner. They have provided classes on juicing and samples. Eddie says, “I want to continue to work together and collaborate when it comes to good food, raw food, and helping others discover what to do with [new ingredients]. One of my goals is [to figure out] how can I make these workshops free and/or affordable for the community.”
 
Though some may feel it is costly or confusing to begin incorporating fresh, local produce into their day-to-day routine, Eddie issues this challenge: think about making healthier choices for you. That may mean cooking with healthier ingredients and incorporating fresh herbs. From there, he says, “Try it. Allocate 10 dollars, go to the store, and see what kind of healthier foods [you] might be able to buy. A lot of people talk about things they may not know. Start with what you can do.”
 
Looking further down the road, Smith has her own passion project that has the potential to allow countless others to positively impact their communities as well. “My personal experiment is to enter into this business and create a business model that I can teach other people that want to get into urban agriculture. When it’s all said and done, I want to be able to say ‘This is what you need to be able to start an urban farm.’ I’m doing the leg work and working out the kinks so that we can close our food system.”

Leandra Nisbet is the Program Editor for the “Making It In Grand Rapids” series. She is Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC and Brightwork Marine LLC. Leandra has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through her work, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at leandra.rapidgrowth@gmail.com!
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