Loyola Magazine

Fresh beginnings

Loyola grows initiative for fresh produce in food desert near campus

When Loyola committed to investing in the communities to the east of the University’s campus in Baltimore, university leaders didn’t assume they knew what changes were needed. Instead, Loyola started by asking residents of the area’s neighborhoods to share their hopes and challenges.

That “Loyola Is Listening” project, a 2010 survey of the local community, brought many opportunities to the forefront.

One such opportunity was that the neighborhoods along York Road within walking distance from Loyola constituted a food desert that needed better access to fresh, affordable produce. Community members indicated that they needed either a farmers’ market, a food store, or a community garden in the area.

In the summer of 2011, Loyola’s York Road Initiative (YRI) established the weekly Govanstowne Farmers’ Market to meet this community need. The market has grown every year since then. It offers not only produce, but also local artisans, free meals for children, and a lively place for neighbors to gather every Wednesday afternoon.

A chalkboard with produce prices next to tomatoes of various colors A young child looks at information at a food stand at the farmer's market

As welcome as the Govanstowne Farmers’ Market was, its success only made it clearer that community residents needed better access to fresh produce on a regular basis throughout the year. Residents—and the University—sought a more sustainable and long-term solution to the lack of healthy food.

In 2015, FreshCrate was born to help make fresh, affordable produce available in local corner stores along the York Road corridor year-round.

A sign that reads Fresh Crate - Get Fresh Here

When store owners typically buy food from a supplier, an additional charge applies for smaller orders. Through the FreshCrate program, however, Loyola acts as the middle man, supplying corner store owners with fresh produce at retail price but at no additional charge for smaller orders. Loyola makes this happen through a partnership with its dining service, Parkhurst Dining Services.

“This is how Loyola is pivotal in changing the food landscape in the community,” said Marie M. Anderson, ’11, assistant director of the YRI.

I’ve lived here most of my life, and we have just started to have access to produce and receive coupons over the past few months.

The FreshCrate program also partners with the GEDCO CARES food pantry to give customers coupons to use for produce at any participating corner stores. During the past three years, more than $14,000 worth of fresh produce has been purchased through this partnership.

Rachael Neill, program director of CARES, has witnessed the positive impacts of FreshCrate and the coupon program along York Road, especially for those who live on fixed incomes.

“Our participants really look forward to the coupons, and they love that the stores are right in the neighborhood,” she said. “When we don’t have the coupons, they are asking for more.”

Raymond Stokley, a York Road resident for more than 20 years, always anticipates using the coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, and we have just started to have access to produce and receive coupons over the past few months. I’m on a fixed income and I can’t afford a lot of things, so the coupons really help,” said Stokley.

Refrigerated produce, including carrots, lettuce, peppers, and lemons

Some of the corner store owners say they are seeing a positive change in their businesses as well. Murry’s Family Food and Market, one of the participating corner stores located along York Road, has experienced an increase in produce sales due to FreshCrate.

“There are no stores in the area with enough fresh fruit and vegetables to serve the community. With FreshCrate, there is a bigger variety of produce,” said Jamil Khawar, Murry’s store owner. “Oftentimes people can’t afford it, so the coupons are good for this program. It has been good for my business.”

When you walk into a participating FreshCrate corner store, there are several rows of wooden crates filled with apples, oranges, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. Produce that requires refrigeration stays fresh in coolers marked with FreshCrate stickers.

FreshCrate is a program originally grant-funded through the United Way of Central Maryland and is supported by the Govans Business Association, the York Road Partnership, and Parkhurst at times when the coupons are not as available.

Loyola’s work to address food security through FreshCrate and the Govanstowne Farmers’ Market recently earned the University the 2018 Mayor’s Business Recognition Award from the Greater Baltimore Committee. This annual award honors groups that demonstrate leadership and promote community service to help improve Baltimore City.

“I see a direct connection between poverty, health, and diet,” said Neill, who has been the program director of CARES for 12 years. “The impact of poor diet is rampant in low-income areas. Those who don’t have access to fresh food are more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. Bringing fresh food into the neighborhood and making it more affordable is very important.”

Photos by Molly Cochran and Chris Singlemann, 17.