Bringing food equity to Dallas

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Residents in south Dallas communities are being offered more access to fresh healthy produce through the Oak Cliff Veggie Project and Mobile Food Market.

Finding fresh, healthy food in south Dallas can be a challenge for its residents.

“The city of Dallas has actively been trying to place grocery stores or more stores that provide access to fresh produce for its south side residents,” said Ples Montgomery, founder of the non-profit Oak Cliff Veggie Project. “It’s about having access to fresh produce so the residents can prepare their own meals. There are a lot of discount stores in the Oak Cliff area that offer boxed food and frozen foods. The distinction is access to fresh healthy produce.

“Minor changes in people’s diets can help mitigate a lot of the health problems that are running rampant in food insecure areas. Having fresh produce on hand forces people into the position of learning and understanding how to use it properly and how to cook with it. This is something our community members need to know–how to actually prepare the food.”

The benefits of community gardens

“The Oak Cliff Veggie Project began as a food distribution program started by Montgomery’s mother Bettie who would collect food and distribute it at the church she was attending.

“My mom wanted to start a food distribution outreach program and community garden at the church,” Montgomery said. “Even though the church didn’t set up the program, my mom was allowed to use its parking lot for food distribution. She purchased food baskets from Bountiful Baskets, an online food co-op, and then distributed the food for free once a month.

“Initially because of my work schedule I wasn’t able to help my mom distribute the food. Eventually I was able to assist her with the food distribution. I also started volunteering at Big Tex Urban Farms at Fair Park. Through my volunteering I was able to talk with people about our interest in setting up a community garden. In 2018, we received the supplies, including a raised bed, the soil and vegetable transplants to start a community garden and the Oak Cliff Veggie Project officially began. If we hadn’t been doing the food distribution, I would have never met the other people who assisted in starting the community garden.”

Oak Cliff Veggie Project volunteers work on raised beds for vegetable plantings.
Photos courtesy of Oak Cliff Veggie Project

Montgomery said the goal of the Veggie Project was to grow and distribute food and to hold educational classes about how to grow and prepare food. The Veggie Project now operates three community gardens. Although food distribution is currently only done at the original garden, Montgomery is looking to expand distribution at the other two.

“Currently, only about 10 percent of the food that we distribute is grown in the gardens,” he said. “The crops we are producing change from season to season. The goal is to scale up the production so that the gardens supply at least 50 percent of the food we distribute. The rest of the food will come as donations from other local agricultural programs, including Big Tex Urban Farms, Over Me Farm at Paul Quinn College and the Harvest Project.

Turnip greens

“This will also be the first year that we offer organized classes at the gardens. When we initially started the gardens, people would come out and help us with the planting. That enabled them to learn about how to plant a garden, soil composition and the type of plants to put in a garden during different seasons. This was basic information people would need if they wanted to plant their own gardens.”

During the monthly food distribution, quick, easy recipes are also offered.

“Sometimes the people receiving the food have never eaten some of the produce that we distribute,” Montgomery said. “They don’t know how to prepare it because they have never had it before. We are planning to add cooking classes and summer camps. We will offer kids’ programs where they come out to the gardens and learn about the basics of plant physiology, soil, plant seasonality and how photosynthesis works.”

Expanding community cooperation, efforts

Butterhead lettuce

Even though the Veggie Project is not a faith-based organization, Montgomery said he is more than willing to work with faith-based groups.

“We are interested in working with any other program or organization that is about empowering community members to be able to do for themselves rather than simply having someone do it for them,” he said. “Right now we are working half with non-profits and half with faith-based organizations. Two of our gardens are located at churches, but that is about the extent of the relationships. The churches’ congregations participate by helping to maintain the gardens. We offer the opportunity for community members to come out and meet each other and help each other to grow and be healthier.”

Montgomery said he would like to see more churches become involved with the Veggie Project.

“Many churches own unused land,” he said. “We are trying to partner with churches to build more community gardens. This would enable more people to participate in growing their own food.

“We have found that, especially with kids, when people are active in growing their food they are more apt to eat it. A kid may have never eaten broccoli before, but if he grows his own broccoli he will want to eat it.”

Taking fresh produce to the people

In 2017, University of North Texas-Dallas assistant professor Kelly Varga took her environmental sciences class on a field trip to the historic Mill City neighborhood in south Dallas. The Mill City teaching farm is designed to teach the community about the importance of healthy living and responsibility through planting vegetables and caring for farm animals.

University of North Texas-Dallas assistant professor Kelly Varga prepares produce for distribution through the Mobile Food Market.
Photos courtesy of Kelly Varga, Univ. of North Texas-Dallas

“It was at the farm that I started to hear the terms food insecurity and food desert and I began to understand how impacted the southern regions of Dallas truly are,” Varga said. “UNT-D students were engaging with real world problems and realizing there is a real issue. It was then that I understood that the university itself, falls in the middle of a food desert and that even some of our students and staff are experiencing food insecurity themselves.

“The question then became not only how can we start to address this problem, but also how can we support the people who are already in this space trying to alleviate these issues. Then it became an issue of how could the university help the community’s efforts to offer sources of fresh produce to the people looking for this food.”

Driving the Mobile Food Market

As a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Varga became aware of the Fresh Moves Mobile Market. A Chicago Transit Authority bus was retrofitted to become a moving grocery store that would provide fresh produce to residents on the south and west side of the city.

“When I moved to Dallas I was really shocked to find there aren’t a lot of options for farmers markets. I thought about rather than having a moving grocery store like in Chicago, it might be possible to provide residents in south Dallas with a moving farmers market.”

Varga began working with other local organizations that were already involved with or operating community gardens and farms, including North Texas Food Bank, Paul Quinn College and Big Tex Urban Farms, to determine their interest in supporting the moving farmers market concept.

“While I was in the process of gathering information and documentation, officials at Toyota had caught wind of this project and asked us to submit a grant proposal as their focus in the social mobility space was addressing aspects of mobility in vulnerable populations.

“At the same time we were wondering how to find a vehicle that could economically transport the produce. We reached out to DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) and inquired whether it would be possible to obtain an older model vehicle. Through collective understanding of DART officials own desires to address food insecurity, DART provided us with a 27-foot compressed-natural gas bus that could be retrofitted to transport the fresh produce.”

Kelly Varga said the last big player in the Mobile Food Market project was her students.

“My first job is to be an educator and researcher so I had to determine how to engage the students in this experiential learning. The Toyota grant offered scholarship opportunities for UNT-D students who were engaged in the project.

“At the same time, the bus required retrofitting and mechanical work so I approached the director of the Automotive Technology program at Cedar Valley College, a community college in Dallas. I was looking to route some of the education funding to the Cedar Valley students. I believed this could be a wonderful opportunity for active learning specifically on addressing real-world, social issues in their backyard. Funding received from the Toyota grant has provided tool kits for the Cedar Valley students to use in their careers beyond the retrofit of the bus.”

Willing to pay for fresh produce

Varga was hoping to launch the Mobile Food Market in May, but has had to delay the start date in part because of COVID-19 restrictions that have been implemented in Dallas.

“The launch delay has more to do with testing the project’s name and the marketing aspects,” she said. “We want to make sure we are engaging community members. We want to be sure people are excited about the bus as a food option, as an alternative in their community and that they are willing to pay for fresh produce.

“The goal is to sell at or below wholesale prices. This is to disprove the narrative that free is the only solution in these communities. We were looking for partnerships in the community that already had audiences so that we didn’t have to try and drum up that business to address the sustainability and business model aspects of the project. Organizations that are working with residents in these communities are hearing that they want the option of choice even if it comes with a cost.”

Kelly Varga said stocking the bus has been the biggest challenge along with maintaining ongoing sustainability.

“This is a volatile market and the margin of profit is very small,” she said. “The other issue is the sourcing. We want to try to provide as much of a food source as possible. A lot of these small community gardens and farms just don’t run at that capacity. We want to be able to offer as many of the staples as possible. Because of the social justice issue, wholesalers like Ben E. Keith and FreshPoint have been willing to sell us the produce at competitive prices.

“While nutrition and health are at the forefront of what we are aiming to do, we want to be able to use all of the resources on the UNT-D campus– all of the faculty and all of the students. We are engaging our students to determine how they can use this platform. The university already has a public health degree and will be launching an urban agriculture degree and certification program. The Mobile Food Market is a vehicle for these students to engage literally back into the communities from which they come from.”

For more: Ples Montgomery, Oak Cliff Veggie Project, (214) 533-9222; plesmm4@gmail.com; https://www.facebook.com/VegstoreOC.
Kelly Varga, University of North Texas at Dallas, Dallas, TX 75241; (972) 338-1529; Kelly.Varga@untdallas.edu.

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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