BY REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — In a freshly whitewashed community center in Schenectady’s Northside neighborhood, boxes of fresh collard greens, carrots and bagged salad waited in boxes.
Educational pamphlets sat in neat stacks on a folding table. Half a dozen Schenectady Inner City Ministry volunteers watched the door expectantly.
Just a few weeks into SICM’s inaugural community-supported agriculture program, attendance was low. It wasn’t exactly the way one might hope a CSA kickoff would go, but it was a kickoff nonetheless.
The volunteers were celebrating the re-opening of the community center at Yates Village, a residential housing project on Van Vranken Avenue. Finally, they could greet customers at the permanent spot for their new CSA.
SICM imagined the Yates Village CSA as a potential answer to twin problems of hunger and poor health that affect too many north Schenectady families.
Problems arise when people who have low incomes and no personal transportation needed to purchase food and other supplies for their families. After receiving benefits during the first 10 days of any month, people who live near the CSA often hire a taxi, visit the nearest Wal-Mart, and stock up. They don’t shop again until their next benefits arrive.
Unfortunately, cheap foods that won’t spoil are often unhealthy, but regular shopping trips aren’t always possible.
“It’s very clearly identified: the Northside is a food desert,” SICM Executive Director the Rev. Phil Grigsby said. “We were trying to brainstorm: What could we do?”
The term “food desert” is as illustrative as it is technical. The USDA gives the designation to areas with high poverty rates and few food markets.
In 2010, the census tract that surrounds Yates Village contained 259 households without a car, situated more than half a mile from a supermarket. That number represents a quarter of the people surveyed.
So SICM has partnered with Raymond and Sara Luhrman of Fox Creek Farm in Schoharie to make healthy food available. Every week, volunteers cart shares of the Luhrmans’ produce to the Yates Village Community center, parcel it out, and wait. The impromptu market is open every Friday from 3–4:30 p.m.
Anyone can stop by the CSA and purchase a hefty “share” of in-season veggies.
The full price for a share is $20 — still a deal compared to supermarket prices — but SICM doesn’t expect many customers to pay even that. People who have EBT cards, which are like debit cards for SNAP benefits, pay $10. They can use their SNAP benefits or pay in cash; as long as they possess EBT cards, they get the discount.
But for many, the barriers are still high.
Low-income residents may have unpredictable work schedules or simply be too pressed for time to come by. They also may not be used to eating fresh produce and may not know what to do with it or even think it looks tasty.
“You think, ‘I’m hungry. Collard greens are not going to fill me. Carrots are not going to fill me,’ ” said Rachel Curtis, who coordinates the CSA.
SICM volunteers are trying to work around those problems, too.
Grigsby sells shares at Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church on Sundays; he sold 10 after services last week.
Also, volunteers pass out fliers with recipes on the back when people come to buy their shares. They offer samples of the veggies, cooked and kept warm at the community center. And soon, they hope to partner with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to hold community cooking classes in the same spot where they distribute the food.
In the meantime, the volunteers are patiently hoping their current customers will spread the word about the cheap, fresh veggies they have for sale.
“We’re still looking for a bigger response,” Grigsby said. “We’ll see what happens.”