A Fresh Start

News Story – 1st Place

– By Kyle Valentini, Bargain Hunter

StarkFresh opened its Food Production and Job Skills Training Farm for guests on Saturday, April 20 to showcase a working urban farm that serves multiple purposes in the community.

Located on Rowland Avenue in a forgotten space near downtown Canton, the farm sits on land that was once an underutilized community park. Known by the locals as Turtle Park, due to a large turtle at its entrance, today the turtle theme is threaded through the farm in a variety of ways.

“We want to celebrate this land as a part of the community,” said Tom Phillips, StarkFresh executive director. “It is important to us to honor this space and the people who live here.”

Visitors to the urban farm saw the greenhouse filled with seed trays prepared by individuals served by X-Excel, a Stark County agency that provide a variety of day services for persons with developmental disabilities.

“On the work days when X-Excel is here, we focus on the things they can do like planting seeds,” Phillips said. “Not everyone has the same skills, so we show our volunteers how to do things and let them decide how they want to help.”

Another group of volunteers includes both men and women from a local transitional housing program where they are healing from the impact of incarceration, homelessness, addiction or a combination of those things.

StarkFresh allows individuals tasked with community service to visit the urban farm. “Some people who have court-ordered community service requirements show up, and it is clear they do not want to be here,” said Teresa Kaminski, Stark- Fresh program director. “We have the opportunity to teach many of them new skills. It is rewarding to see how they change after they have spent time on the farm. We are always impressed when someone returns to us to volunteer even after their community-service requirement has been fulfilled.”

A cob oven made from natural materials that are abundant virtually anywhere in the world — clay, stone, sand and straw — and shaped like a turtle is the focal point of the area of the farm where raised beds are quite at home in the former playground. Phillips said the oven can be used to bake bread, make pizza and anything one might make in a traditional oven.

A primitive but effective produce washing station is available to clean fruits, vegetables and herbs before they go to a farmers’ market or are delegated to the Mobile Grocery Market that delivers food to underserved populations in the region.

When StarkFresh noticed senior citizens were not attending their stationary farmers’ market, they asked why. They came to realize a more equitable solution to fighting food insecurity would be to bring the food directly to them in the form of a truck that delivers food access to senior housing complexes, public housing properties, public service centers, permanent supportive housing and areas with low fresh-food access such as in a food desert.

Phillips prefers the term, food apartheid, which takes race, economics, faith and geography into account.

“We serve people who have few options for fresh food and who are also limited to access to that food,” Phillips said. “If they can’t get to the food, they can’t benefit from it.” The Mobile Grocery Market accepts all payment types including cash, credit, debit, WIC, Senior Farmers Market Nutrition vouchers and SNAP/EBT. A $10 match is given for anyone who uses their SNAP card and spends $10, effectively doubling their money and allowing them to purchase more food.

A grower’s cooperative made up of a mix of local farmers, community members and home gardeners provides additional inventory for the Mobile Grocery Market. This allows the producers to earn extra money and keeps the money in the same community it is being spent.

Getting fresh food into the hands of individuals and families who need it is only part of the challenge. “We show customers how they can cook their food too,” Phillips said. “Most farmers’ markets provide recipes for customers. It’s not that simple though. Recipes require pots and pans, utensils, measuring cups, things many people do not have. We give them basic instructions using the tools and cooking sources they have so they can enjoy fresh food too.”

StarkFresh is a collaborator, a facilitator, a mediator and most importantly a leader in the growing local food scene in the region. Through partnerships and persistence, they along with hundreds of community volunteers continue to innovate, educate and find ways to combat systematic poverty and provide equitable food access throughout the county.

While StarkFresh is limited to Stark County, Phillips was quick to point out the ideas they have had and the successes that have come from those ideas can be duplicated or modified to fit the needs of any neighborhood or community, no matter how urban or rural.

In addition to the urban farm at 613 Rowland Ave. NE in Canton, StarkFresh also has garden sites at Edible Park Oasis, the Urban Teaching Farm and Herbruck Park.

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