Different groups, new approaches, same goal: eating local By Catherine MacDonald, Managing Editor

Two Richmond groups have taken two different approaches to reach a common goal—to provide residents with fresh, local, organic food.

Several years ago when Mark Lilly was a student at the University of Richmond, he was hit with a harsh reality: In its current setup, our food system is unsustainable.

He realized that, especially in urban areas like Richmond, people are not making enough of an effort to eat local—a practice he believes makes food production realistic in the long term.

Around the same time, a group of neighbors and friends in Church Hill had the same thought, and transformed an abandoned lot into an urban garden. Empowered by their success, they had an idea: to set up community gardens all throughout the city.

While that group immediately got to work and founded Tricycle Gardens, a 501(c)3, Lilly had to wait to take action.

This past June, Lilly lost his job. He says that gave him the opportunity to start up his Farm to Family bus, known affectionately as the “Veggie Bus” to Richmonders.

Lilly describes his bus as a “scaled down farmer’s market” to take into urban areas and lower income neighborhoods. Many of his stops are near the VCU campuses and in areas frequented by students.

“No one seen anyone like what I’m doing, anywhere. The first thing they say when they walk on here is ‘wow,’ and then, “This is the coolest concept I’ve ever seen.’ ” Lilly said. “It was easy to start because a lot of people are really interested in supporting something like this.”

He said although some customers travel to shop at his bus, such as one woman who drives to the city from Petersburg almost every day, Richmond residents truly appreciate that Lilly brings the food to their doorstep.

“Oh it’s wonderful,” said customer Cat Taillard. “They bring it to you so you don’t have to go so far.”

Taillard, who purchased some acorn squash, said the Veggie Bus is an important staple in Carytown, where it travels to every Saturday.

“I didn’t reinvent the wheel, I just packaged the system real nice,” Lilly said. “There used to be all types of deliverymen. That system kind of collapsed in the ‘60s, so people love it because it reminds them of when they were little and how things used to be.”

Lilly said that ideally, everyone would try to grow his or her own food.

“But it’s almost an impossible feat in this day and age because eating out and shopping at supermarkets is so convenient,” Lilly said. “People just don’t cook like they used to. Everybody eats out. People don’t have time to cook or shop, so this is sort of a process here to get people back into that mentality.”

Meanwhile, Tricycle Gardens has formed ties with neighborhood organizations, local foundations, educational institutions and the city government to support the construction of more community gardens, according to its Web site. The group currently has seven gardens completed or in development in locations such as the Carver and Museum districts.

Mark Wood, VCU professor of religious studies and Tricycle Garden’s board vice chair, said access to fresh, local food is important to urban communities.

“Many of these communities, especially in the city of Richmond, do not have access to local, organically grown, healthy food,” Wood stated in an e-mail. “They live in what sociologists and nutritionists and food advocates call ‘food deserts.’ The only food to which they have access is typically highly processed and characterized by high concentrations of fat, sugar and salt.”

Wood said a lack of access to healthy food could be detrimental to a person’s health.

“And this goes some distance toward explaining why these communities suffer from devastatingly high rates of Type II diabetes, as well as various forms of diet-related cancers, stroke and heart disease,” he stated.

Lilly said his bus is making strides toward consistently providing healthy food to people in urban areas.

“Many of them have to drive far to get (locally grown food) or they don’t have a farmer’s market in the neighborhood, so the bus is a good way for them to access healthy food,” Lilly said. “It’s important for everybody, but a lot of low-income neighborhoods don’t have any access to fresh, local food and don’t have transportation.”

Lilly said non-local produce often travels thousands of miles to reach its destination, which can cause it to lose its nutritional value. Plus, food that travels less far is more environmentally friendly.

“It’s all environmentally friendly to try and lower the carbon footprint on food travel and food distribution,” he said.

Wood said community gardens also have a positive effect on the environment.

“They also help improve the air quality, as do all green spaces,” Wood said.

Wood said community gardens increase property values, and studies have shown that they also reduce crime, “as people get to know each other and spend more time out in the community.”

“They provide places for residents to come together, young and old, and reconnect with each other over the satisfying work of tending a garden,” Wood said. “They provide spaces of beauty and relaxation.”

Wood said the group does not maintain the gardens, which helps foster community bonding and growth.

“We help communities build their own gardens, and provide guidance on how to grow, etc, but the aim is to help communities construct gardens that will then be sustained by the community members,” Wood said.

Both Wood and Lilly agree that ensuring people eat local in the long-term starts with education.

According to an article by CivilEats.com, one of Tricycle Garden’s most successful projects involves a partnership with the Neighborhood Resource Center, a community center serving a lower-income neighborhood. The NRC offers after-school, preschool and adult education programs.

Tricycle Garden has helped the NRC design and build a raised-bed learning garden. There are plans in place to hire staff to teach nutrition and use garden produce to provide healthy snacks to children at the center.

According CivilEats.com, Tricycle Gardens maintains a presence through weekly after-school gardening class for both children and adults, which is led by the group’s resident horticulturist Allison Mesnard.

Lilly said he is aiming to provide his services to lower-income areas, and was recently certified to accept food stamps. However, he said the education process has to come first.

“A lot of times they don’t know what the food is, how to cook it, and it’s expensive,” Lilly said.

He said educating younger generations about healthy food is vital.

“The growing gap the kids have with healthy food is a major problem,” Lilly said. “I think it’s real important that becomes a real major agenda focus. I try to do what I can, I’m not going be able to reach everybody but I have helped change things in peoples’ lives.”

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