There is a hidden injustice in Evansville, Indiana: food inequity. Downtown Evansville is known as a “high priority food area”, a place that lacks access to fresh produce and foods with higher nutrition. Multiple organizations around Evansville are working to put nutritious foods onto the plates of those living in healthy food priority areas.
One such organization is Urban Seeds, a non-profit organization with a focus to attack food inequity within the city. Registered nurse and director of Urban Seeds, Robin Mallery, sees a distinct need for the many services Urban Seeds offers to fight food injustice in the Evansville area.
“40% of Evansville is in the footprint of having no grocery store and only convenient foods or fast foods available, and about 20% of our community lives in poverty,” she states.
“Food Desert” is a term commonly used for high priority food areas. Ms. Mallery prefers the use of “High Food Priority Area” because “desert” brings to mind a picture of a barren wasteland, but the reality of deserts is that they are vibrant and filled with life.
“The two words ‘food desert’ bring to mind this area that is devoid of commitment, or love, or activism, or self-worth, and even though the phrase high priority food area does not easily roll off the tongue, it is so much more descriptive of reality,” Mallery says. “It takes the responsibility away from those people live in that neighborhood and puts it where it belongs, which is the broken food system.”
When a group of mothers noticed a need for more nutritious food in schools, they decided to organize. Urban Seeds, then called Urban Sisterhood, developed community gardens and shared meals with their neighborhoods. Gradually, their ideas grew, and as they became a 501C3, funding for larger projects flooded in.
Urban Seeds is now the main fiscal agent for a number of events and sub-organizations around the Evansville area. Around 2015, they shifted their focus to PSE, which stands for Policy, Systems, Environment, and teamed up with Purdue Extension to execute community projects and grow their non-profit organization.
“Your non-profit must be mission driven if you’re going to succeed,” Mallery says.
Through their partnership with the Welborn Baptist Foundation, they developed the program Nourish. Nourish buys nutritious foods wholesale and resells those items at 40% off from what they paid. People can go online and buy themed grocery bags with different kinds of produce, meats, and dairy products, and pick them up locally.
“I think we have an opportunity to expand our outreach with the Nourish program. Not only in the food access space, but more importantly the education opportunity,” states Mallery.
Once people have these products though, they need to know how to prepare it. Urban Seeds offers cooking classes as well. One of Robin Mallery’s favorite events is Book n’ Cook. Families with children come to the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library to receive books about cultural foods as well as cooking lessons and utensils.
“We want cooking to be easy and pleasant. We also want it to be a family affair,” she says. ”Have your three-year-old tear up the leaves of the greens so that can be sautéed into your dinner. Have your five-year-old peel carrots. Not only does it make it more fun, you’re modeling behavior that you want to see perpetuated in the next generation.”
Book n’ Cook not only provides basic tools and ingredients for Evansville’s youth to learn how to cook, but it also teaches about seasonal and local foods. Robin Mallery wants to stress the importance for parents to feed their children nutritious meals and the importance for children to learn early-on the benefits of nutritious foods.
Ms. Mallery explains, “We’re taking that path of least resistance and most convenience, we’re feeding food that has been adulterated to these precious children, which affects their metabolism in ways that people who work in healthcare as I have, we see it. We see it in obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, learning challenges, and behavior challenges.”
Urban Seeds oversees and even boosts SNAP benefits at local markets as well, such as Market on Main and the Franklin Street Bazaar. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Urban Seeds match up to $10 in SNAP benefits at these markets, also called Double Bucks. If a person were to use $10 of their SNAP benefits on meat and local products at these events, Urban Seeds would offer them another $10 for produce. Urban Seeds is even hoping to increase that number to $20 in SNAP benefits in the near future.
“That means when a family comes in and buys some meat and eggs and bread with their SNAP vouchers, they can save their Double Bucks just for the produce. It’s a way for us to increase the fresh fruits and vegetables in families’ kitchens,” explains Mallery.
Urban Seeds has had a noticeable impact on the Evansville community. With sponsoring so many events in the area and supporting the local economy, Robin Mallery has much to be proud of.
“One of the things I’m really proud of in our work is that we have clearly changed the conversation in Southwest Indiana about food justice,” Ms. Mallery states.
According to a study done by Purdue University, if each
amily in the Evansville area allotted 10% of their food budget to local producers, that would generate $55 million in revenue for the local economy. There are a few easily accessible resources for locals to reach that 10% goal. Robin Mallery likes to use Local Source.
“If you go to localsourceswi.com, that is the new farmers’ food hub,” she says. “There are many farmers who are growing lettuces, kale, any number of greens in hoop houses, so they can grow throughout the year. We also have two aquaponic growers here, which means everything they grow is completely indoors.”
Local produce can also be bought directly from the producer. Ms. Mallery also participates in a Community Supported Agriculture share, or CSA share. This is a great way to actively participate in local seasonal eating.
“I invest money every January, my farmer then uses that money to buy her seeds, do her planting, and begin to pay herself. I start getting my food delivered once a week, beginning in about May,” she states. “In the beginning, we usually get smaller shares of early greens, broccoli and such, but as the season grows, you get cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes. I get this huge amount of food every week for May through October.”
Robin Mallery plans on retiring at the end of the year, but she’s looking forward to the future of Urban Seeds.
“Providing access to nourishing food is only a small step in the right direction,” she emphasizes. ”The next pieces are about cultivating dignity, providing foods that are culturally familiar to families, foods that they actually desire and not that they’re just given because they need it.”
Urban Seeds looks forward to maintaining their presence in the community and providing nourishment to Evansville citizens.
To stay up to date with events and programs form Urban Seeds, follow them on Facebook or visit their website at urbanseeds.org. Be sure to also check out localsourceswi.com to find locally sourced food and support the Evansville Community.