Editor's note: This story is part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County. The series will continue throughout 2017 and feature interviews with those working to mitigate the problem and the obstacles they encounter.
MANSFIELD -- Mansfield, it's time for an intervention -- a "food systems" intervention.
For too long the city and surrounding communities have struggled with food-related issues; namely, food insecurity.
By definition, food insecurity is "the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food."
According to a nonprofit organization known as Feeding America, in 2015 there were 42.2 million Americans living in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children.
Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" project shows that 19,920 Richland County residents were considered food insecure in 2014, equating to 16.2 percent of the population by Feeding America's calculations.
North End Community Improvement Collaborative has worked to tackle this problem of food insecurity, largely because it affects many north end residents.
NECIC defines the North End neighborhood of Mansfield, Ohio as census tracts 6, 7, and 16. Census tracts 6 and 7 are the region bordered by Trimble Road on the west, North Main Street to the east, Park Avenue West on the south, and Longview Avenue to the north. Census Tract 16 is the region bordered by Poth Road on the north, Ohio 39 and U.S. 30 to the south, North Trimble Road on the west and Bowman Street to the east.
Food insecurity is a complex issue that researchers have devoted much time and effort to tracking while seeking possible causes.
The National Coalition for the Homeless says the principle causes of food insecurity are unemployment, high housing costs, low wages, poverty, lack of access to SNAP (food stamps) and medical or health care costs.
Not to be forgotten are food deserts, which also contribute to food insecurity.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as "parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers."
According to Tony Chinni, community development manager with NECIC, "Census tract 6 (in Mansfield's north end) is probably the truest food desert in that there is low access to transportation, low income and it fits the criteria for the distance from a supermarket, or some venue with fresh produce."
Fortunately for this area, a new grocery store, K.V. Market, will open later this year. The store is located at the former E&B Market on West Fourth Street.
Deanna West-Torrence, NECIC's executive director, said NECIC "stumbled" into work meant to alleviate food desert problems.
"That wasn't something that we initially were looking to do, and we stumbled into it basically through the community gardens," she said.
NECIC launched the North End Local Foods Initiative, made up of three primary components: community gardens, the North End Farmers' Market, and the Blust Avenue Teaching Garden.
NECIC's support for community gardens began when it awarded a North End Small Grant to the Atherton Avenue Community Garden. Since then, the Community Garden Network has grown to 28 community and school gardens in Richland County, 22 of which are in the city of Mansfield.
The gardens help meet a number of needs -- from access to fresh produce, to educational opportunities, recreational activity and more.
Not only has this initiative cultivated self-sufficiency at the local level, but it's pushed blighted properties back to productive use through a collaboration with the Land Bank.
It wasn't long after the market at the corner of Ohio 39 and Harker Street closed (when the issue of food deserts became more pronounced in the area), that NECIC launched a farmers' market.
The North End Farmers' Market began with every-other-week sessions and now operates on a weekly basis from May through October.
The market is geared toward north end residents "because that is our focus -- to improve the quality of life and economic landscape of the north end community," said Candace Harrell, teaching garden coordinator.
In October 2015, the Blust Avenue Teaching Garden opened. It allows people of all ages to gain a hands-on education, learning the ins and outs of growing a garden.
Classes are free. Anyone interested can set up one-on-one sessions around their schedule.
Through the Volunteer for Veggies program, anyone who helps in the teaching garden leaves with a bag of produce -- whatever happens to be in season at the time.
Similarly, the "Farm to Market" program, which is open to north end residents, gives teaching garden volunteers a chance to win a week's worth of harvest. Winners can either keep the produce for themselves, or sell it at the farmers' market.
"If they have no market experience, we'll provide everything they need to sell at the market that day and walk them through the process, so it gives them an economic boost and a jumpstart into micro-business enterprise," Harrell said.
Sparking a mental shift
As NECIC has shouldered its way through different obstacles standing in the way of promoting healthy living in the north end, the organization found some relief with the rising popularity of gardening.
"It's cool how trendy it's become," said Rochelle Jones, community garden organizer.
People are even moving past traditional ways of growing gardens by using more creative methods, such as vertical growing. This can be seen in NECIC's parking lot.
But getting people to latch onto certain ideas wasn't always easy, especially in the organization's early years.
"It was more difficult than we thought," West-Torrence said.
"For one, people have feelings about food, cultural feelings about food, and so what we found when we put our market at the elder program, we were really shocked that more elders didn't take advantage of it.
"They would tell us things like, 'I came from down south -- growing food is not something I ever want to do.' They have very, very negative experiences tied to it, so you're kind of trying to work uphill on certain things, and that was something we did not anticipate."
To help alleviate that opposition, NECIC has built incentives into its programs, such as the SNAP match at the farmers' market.
"What we do is when someone spends $20 on their SNAP benefit card, then we can give them up to $20," said Falon Allen with AmeriCorps VISTA. "We have meat, dairy, eggs, baked goods, so people have access to all that, plus they're doubling their money.
"That's really been a good benefit to have, especially when you're dealing with the food insecure population."
Focusing on health
In June 2016, NECIC conducted a minority health conversation and found that many food-related diseases and problems (diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity) correlate with food deserts.
As grocery stores disappeared, dollar stores took their place. A Google Maps search shows that Mansfield is home to 13 dollar stores, three of which are in what's considered the north end.
"The dollar stores sell much more food than they ever did, but it's boxed and processed," West-Torrence said.
"If you're on foot, then that's where you're going to go, and that's what you're going to eat and you're going to be unhealthier," said Assistant Professor Kip Curtis, who teaches history at The Ohio State Mansfield. "A lot of these are people are on food stamps or Medicaid, and we all pay the cost of that.
"It makes more sense to invest in healthy food than to have to pay medical fees in the long run for people who live in neighborhoods where there is no access to fresh food."
In census tracts 6 and 7, more than half of the households are receiving SNAP benefits, according to Chinni. Census tract 16 comes in at around 35 percent, bringing the whole north end's average to 47.6 percent. The county's average, in comparison, is 17.3 percent. The state and national averages are about 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
"We've run into people who don't know what to do with fresh produce," Harrell said. "Generally, if you're a SNAP benefit recipient, then you have a limited amount that has to be spent just on food -- and fresh produce doesn't last. If you can buy boxes of macaroni and cheese for the price of a head of lettuce, which are you going to get?"
"Plus if you're working two jobs and you're time is limited, the idea of meal preparation can be somewhat overwhelming, as well," Curtis said.
In 2009, Curtis founded the Edible Peace Patch Project in St. Petersburg, Florida. According to the group's website, the Edible Peace Patch Project is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that aims to eliminate poverty as a factor in educational success and diet-related health issues by cultivating healthy minds and bodies.
"To accomplish this mission we provide education through hands-on learning, in our organic garden beds. These sustainable gardens are built through community co-creation and utilization of local resources," the website says.
For eight years, Curtis worked on this program, building it from ground level.
"It grew into this community-wide project, with gardens planted at every school and a local farm that would produce food for those schools, as well," he said.
Now, Curtis and a group of 13 OSU researchers involved in the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) want to start something similar in Richland County and are partnering with NECIC to accomplish this goal.
"What we're trying to do from OSU is sort of come in and think systemically," Curtis said. "How might we use a remodeling of the food system to do three things: to create food security and the food literacy that's necessary around it, to create economic development -- by which we mean real economic opportunities where we're training people to be able to bring in anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 a year in food sales on a quarter to half an acre of urban intensive growing -- and to integrate teaching and learning gardens in all of the schools and initiate year-round growing, so we're not stuck with the climate here.
"What we're calling it is a 'food systems intervention.'"
To help get this idea off the ground, the OSU researchers are seeking $2.3 million in grant funds and have been invited by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) to submit a full proposal for a seeding solutions grant.
"We are finding interest and excitement in the community about the idea, and we are hopeful we will have good news about the grant by May," Curtis said.
One of their intents is to build an urban demonstration training and model farm at the local college campus, which will model gardening techniques from around the upper midwest. They hope to do the same with the Blust Avenue Teaching Garden, as well with the local schools.
"We're looking at addressing (really integrating) sustainable urban agriculture into two places -- economic development and public education -- in order to address the multi-layer systemic problems that are faced in the community, really the entire rust belt," Curtis said.
He envisions a cooperative of growers who are trained and certified so that they're able contract with OSU, local schools, restaurants and institutions.
"We teach these growers how to grow what the market is going to buy so that everything that they produce has a guaranteed buyer week after week," he said. "And they can grow as much or little as they want, but we're now talking about supplemental income and even better incomes than some people can make with hourly jobs."
Another aspect of this effort is beautification and conservation of natural resources.
"The first year is really about sitting down and talking with people about what they would like this opportunity to look like, what are the attitudes that we're confronting, what are the laws that are standing in the way, how can we make this something that the community has ownership over so that in the second year we start building," he said.
"We're building what the community has identified and defined as what they would like, and then we test it."
The researchers will track the project's progress, which may leverage additional grant dollars that could be used to fine-tune and expand the system.
Curtis estimates it will probably take 10 years to get this all up and running.
"What we will have at the end of that is a sustainable local food system that no longer needs to go after outside dollars because it's creating an economy that sustains itself So it's economically sustainable and it addresses these natural resource preservation issues, which we think are critical in urban and rural environments.
"And it address the food security issue and education."
West-Torrence is thrilled this project is on the horizon.
"Our vision statement is that in 2027, the north end is the leading engine of economic vitality, youth arts and civic engagement," she said.
That timeline aligns perfectly with this project's timeline.
"There have been a number of attempts to work on our local sectors," West-Torrence said. "There was some initial work that was done -- this idea of a food hub -- and so when we heard about Kip and what it was he wanted to do, it completely legitimizes and elevates our vision. It's about quality of life and economic landscape."