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St. Louis farmers market seeks to fill gap in food desert

When several Shop ‘N Save grocery stores closed last year in north St. Louis, residents in some neighborhoods were left without easy access to healthy produce.

A local nonprofit organization, A Red Circle, aims to fill the void with a monthly community farmers market that does more than just sell fresh food, St. Louis Public Radio reported.

“It’s going to be a very cool farmers market with a purpose,” Red Circle founder and CEO Erica Williams said.

The Red Circle Healthy Community Market kicked off May 25 at Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church in Riverview. Organizers plan to hold the market every last Saturday of the month through the end of summer.

The nonprofit started the market after it surveyed residents about their neighborhoods’ food needs. It found Bellefontaine Neighbors and Riverview were particularly in need of better food options.

Williams used her networking skills to recruit other nonprofits to help. Organizers decided to schedule the market alongside a food pantry and Zion Travelers Church to reach more residents. The market will take Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers, debit, cash and SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps.

But putting healthy food in front of people isn’t enough, Williams said. Besides selling produce from local growers, the market will feature presenters on health education, exercise classes like chair yoga and low-impact aerobics, and housing assistance.

“We also want to build the capacity in the community around the people who, for various reasons, were only exposed to canned goods or things from the shelves or things from dollar-type stores,” she said.

“There’s a cultural aspect to food,” said Tosha Phonix, food justice organizer for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “People don’t know how to cook.”

Studies back up those claims. One, from 2015, found putting government-subsidized grocery stores in low-access neighborhoods did little to change people’s diets. Another, from the National Bureau for Economic Research, found education and income levels were much more indicative of people’s food behaviors than proximity to a supermarket.

Community-led solutions and education are key to making people healthier, Phonix said.

“The grocery stores aren’t coming back,” she said. Alternative models of stores, such as farmers markets and co-ops, can assure investment stays within a neighborhood, she said.

“If you own what is in your community, no one can say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be here’ and move out. It will be the community’s. The community will benefit from it, and it will go back into the communities.”

Williams hopes the market will reach enough people in its first few months to be able to return in 2020. While the neighborhoods around the market are its primary focus, people coming from outside areas could help make it sustainable.

“We want people to know there are good things happening,” Williams said. “There are ways to plug in, to get involved, and we can start that with food.”

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