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Reaching the Corners of the City: REC’s Mobile Market in Worcester

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 December Issue Newsletter

By Mindy Harris, NOFA/Mass Director of Public Relations

REC’s Mobile Market in Worcester

REC (Regional Environmental Council) began in Worcester in 1971.  The organization came into existence with the introduction of a lawsuit against the City of Worcester, which at the time was planning to site a landfill in Greenhill Park.  A Coalition of environmental orgs came together to claim that the park was used space and not available space.  Despite the lost suit, a strong commitment to environmental justice and healthy living became at the core of REC’s mission.  Although its various programs and activities have evolved over the years,  REC conceives itself as trying to ‘right’ the environmental inequities that exist for people in the inner city.  REC concerns itself with access to open space, safe places to play, healthy food, and healthy air/living spaces.  In the inner city, environmental hazards include air pollution, lead poisoning, indoor and outdoor pollutant from cleaners/hazardous waste.  Often property owners have the inability to remove hazards from housing, and zoning is such that residents are living next door to industrial areas which create air pollution and congestion.   On the food front, proximity to healthy food, familiarity with products, and financial resources are the obstacles inner city residents face in achieving healthy nutrition.  REC is working to close those gaps with a grassroots approach to empowering communities from the inside. 

REC’s programs are divided into two areas:  Environmental Health & Justice and Food Justice. In the Environmental Health and Justice area include REC’s ‘Green and Healthy Homes Coalition,’ which works on the lead abatement issue;  ’Worcester Diesel Solution,’ an effort to retrofit Worcester buses and eliminate dependence on diesel fuel; ’ ‘Weatherize Worcester,’ a program which helps residents engage in home energy assessments and improvements;  and ‘Trash Action’ which runs citywide Earthday cleanups and smaller neighborhood cleanups.

The Food Justice program works with low income neighborhoods, seniors, schoolchildren, refugees and immigrants - anyone who have obstacles to getting food.   The Food Justice program includes another 4 organizational initiatives: Community Gardens, Youth GROW, Farmers’ Markets, and Cooking Matters ™.  

REC helps to facilitate over 63 Community Gardens in Worcester, including 20 school gardens.  Casey Burns is REC’s Food Justice Program Director and coordinates all 4 food-area projects. She has been with the organization for almost a decade.  

 “We need to change the way we talk about hunger.  The opposite of hungry is not full. The opposite of hungry is healthy. If people are getting fed off of fast-food, that’s not solving the hunger problem.  It takes more of a long-term approach around having food available that people want, are comfortable eating, and can get to and can afford. This is more complicated.  The local food movement hasn’t been culturally accessible or appropriate for the communities we’ve been working with.  We need to have leadership in these programs that makes this movement accessible in a broad way. We look at the communities that are harder hit.  We have a high level of success in growing food with seniors and immigrants with farming backgrounds. Many different communities have a history of growing their own food.  We try to tap into those communities and integrate our message into what they already know.”

The Youth GROW program is a training program with a year-round curriculum on two urban farm campuses; a curriculum which focuses on life skills, healthy eating and growing your own food.  The Farmer’s Market, which has been functioning for 5 years, runs every Saturday, June through October, and this season, served over 6,000 Worcester customers.  The market accepts SNAP and WIC coupons. 

Through its Cooking Matters program, REC teaches city residents and kids how to select healthy and low-cost options at the grocery store, and how to turn ingredients into exciting and delicious dishes. REC is bridging a food ‘comfort’ gap, or a ‘familiarity’ gap.  According to Burns, “No matter how much Kale you make available,  if it’s not what people want to eat, or feel comfortable eating, or know how to prepare, or can afford to buy, then they are not going to eat it. If you are not selling the produce where people are shopping, then they don’t know how to get to it.  You need people from the communities that you are trying to support to be in the leadership roles to know whether you are hitting the mark or not.”

According to Burns, REC’s strength as an organization lies within its ability to work in a grassroots way, tapping into the communities where they work, and really understanding the needs of residents. 

“Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen the Food Justice program grow a lot because there is a national movement of food programs developing.  When we started this work, we were the ‘little guy in the room,’ saying things that [according to outsiders] were a little off-base or not relevant.  In talking about hunger and food access, the traditional response was around emergency and band-aid solutions.  We’ve gotten a lot more recognition and support over the last few years as the larger food movement becomes in the forefront, and people get educated around long-term solutions and the grassroots approach.” 

REC believes firmly that for any change to occur, education and advocacy must begin within the communities themselves.  Training lay-leaders to shape the programs REC offers, and to give feedback on how the programs are working ‘on the ground’ is essential to the success of their work.  REC is very good at recruiting volunteers and training leaders.  Because it is a small organization, Casey thinks it can be responsive to the needs of its constituents in a way larger organizations can’t.  Programmatic changes can happen quickly, from year to year, if activities aren’t meeting larger goals, or aren’t appealing to constituents appropriately.

But Burns concedes that the obstacles to developing access to healthy food are not exclusively internal to these underserved communities.  There are outside influences that have enormous impact on the policies that support food access.   Burns didn’t hesitate to jump into what can often be a sticky dialogue underlying their work in diverse communities: 

“When people ask me what the major obstacles are around food access and development of resources – racism and poverty are the two major issues. If we can talk about these issues openly and honestly, then we can start to get closer to meeting the needs that people have.   There are a many internalized assumptions about authority in decision-making around health-resources.  People don’t realize when they are making decisions for communities they are not a part of how off-base they can be in determining what can be the most helpful to people.   There are not many people of color in leadership positions in the Worcester City Council, or in any of our city leadership.   Because of that, I think there are assumptions around what people need.  There is a lot of misguided judgment around food stamps, and how that program is monitored.  In the public discourse, there is focus on the abuses of that system, which are the exception to the rule.  That focus is fueled by racism.  The perspective affects how resources get allocated. Momentum and attitudes get spread and become the norm.”

Enter Mobile Market.  The grocery market on wheels represents a long-term dream of REC.  The organization had been running its farmers market for 5 years.  It received lots of feedback from both farmers and customers, including many requests from residents in different parts of the city to open up additional markets.   Without the capacity to run additional markets, REC tried to come up with a solution that would expand access to folks who needed healthy options, without over-taxing its staff. The notion of transforming a van into a Mobile Market was a great way to bring food to the people. The organization got a van donated from the WRTA, received funding from Harvard Pilgrim and some additional funding from the Health Foundation of Central Mass to design the van and to make it nice looking.  In August of 2012, REC launched the Mobile Market, and started running two days of market stops, with a total of 10 stops.   So far, it has been a stunning success.   People were able to use WIC coupons that wouldn’t otherwise have been redeemed because they weren’t able to get to a farmer’s market, or didn’t know where to go.

The Mobile Market featured produce from three farms:  Shultz Farm in Rutland, Foptemas, and REC’s own Youth Grow farms.   Because the Mobile Market offers produce from three farms, it was able to ‘qualify’ as a farmers market, which allows it to accept WIC and senior coupons and SNAP. And through some additional funding,  all season they offered 50% off on SNAP sales.  The Mobile Market stops included Worcester Senior Center, Edward M. Kennedy Health Center, Family Health Center on Queen Street (WIC office), Plumley Village, 40 Belmont Street, Elm Park Towers, Elm Park & Crompton Park, Seabury Heights Senior Housing, Lakeside Apartment.  REC is hoping that they will be able to leverage their Mobile Market work and create a Food Hub in Worcester, which would connect food producers to wholesale buys, restaurants and institutions.  This is a project for the future.  For the moment, however, they are very encouraged by the reception the Mobile Market has received. 

 “We’re experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ in our food programs.  We have a history of good experience behind us. We know that a grassroots approach works.  We’re now lucky to be at a place where this [food work] is becoming big news from the national level.  Mobile market has given us a kind of organizational visibility we haven’t seen in a while.”

Casey Burns is the Food Justice Program Director at REC (Regional Environmental Council) in Worcester. Casey will be offering a workshop called “Mobile Farmers Markets and Working Towards a Food Hub in Worcester” at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference, on Saturday, January 12th, at Worcester State University.   For more information on REC’s work, check out their Website.

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