In many city neighborhoods, it's tough to find a head of lettuce or fresh summer corn, and even when they can be found, they might not always be affordable. A program of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has been doing its best to counteract the unhealthful problem for 15 years, with new stands cropping up every year.
There are 12 weekly community farm stands around the city, set up in neighborhoods with low-income or elderly populations that are underserved by grocery stores. The stands place an emphasis on locally grown produce, and take food stamps and the nutrition vouchers that elderly residents qualify for. Of course, they take plain old greenbacks, too.
"When I'm looking to start a farm stand in a new community, I look at demographics -- the poverty level, people on WIC, seniors," says Vicki Lish, farm-stand specialist with the food bank. "We look at if there's a grocery store in the community, if there's already a farmers' market -- we're not looking to undercut the farmers' market, we want to work with them. We look at all these factors to see if a community deserves a farm stand."
The markets run 23 weeks beginning in mid-June, on either Wednesdays or Thursdays. Community nonprofits sponsor and run the stands on behalf of the food bank. The produce comes mostly from three local farms -- Harvest Valley, Soergel Orchards and Greenawalt Farms. Lish says the stock is occasionally supplemented with non-local produce when there's a gap in the supply, but that's the exception, not the rule.
"We feel it's important to have sources for local foods," she explains. It's important both for the communities served by the farms, she says, which may be battling obesity or malnourishment from lacking fresh produce, and the small, local farms who depend on markets like these to sell their wares.
The farms, Lish says, believe in the project and sell the produce to the food bank at nearly wholesale. The farm stands add a tiny mark-up to cover operating costs, but the prices compare favorably to those at grocery stores.
On a recent afternoon full of the threat of rain, the Lawrenceville farm stand in the parking lot of the Stephen Foster building on Main Street offers bell peppers for 50 cents, big glossy cucumbers for 75 cents and tousled heads of cabbage for $1.75.
Cheryl White lives just across the parking lot, and has stopped by each week since the stand opened. Three green peppers and a watermelon go home with her.
"It's so close and fresh," she says. "I like it, and you can't beat the price. I got asparagus last time. At Giant Eagle it's like up to $5.99. It was cheaper here, like $3."
Bob Ruhloff's also a local, but it's his first time at the stand, and he takes a cantaloupe and some cukes. "I like getting fresh fruits and vegetables, supporting some local stuff."
Like most customers, they pay with cash. How much people take advantage of being able to pay with food stamps varies by location, says Gretchen Steihl, who runs the stand along with volunteers Margaret Coles, Faye Jones and Eileen Pietrusinski.
"People can pay with the [food-stamp] cards, people with WIC can come as well," she says. Next week, after the Farmers Market Nutrition Program Vouchers come out, more senior citizens will come out, she says, to take advantage of the $20 vouchers for fresh produce. "It's nice for the seniors; they don't have to go too far."
The stands try to accommodate special orders, too.
"We have a gentleman who likes hot peppers," she says. "We may try to order some for him. We have a variety of fruits and vegetables -- something for everyone. It's just kind of a neighborhood thing. We're trying to build community."
Indeed, a woman and her great-granddaughter stop by for fruit and to swing on the swings, and a neighbor brings his days-old daughter over to say hello on his way to the library.
"In different neighborhoods, people eat differently," says Pietrusinksi. "In some neighborhoods, we sell a lot of greens and kale."
"One year, my brother and his wife came and bought all the greens," says Coles. "They asked him not to come back!" she adds with a laugh.
Mary Ann Heneroty, the CEO of the Catholic Youth Association, the neighborhood nonprofit sponsor for this particular stand, stops by for a head of cabbage
"It's really great for this neighborhood," Heneroty says. "There's not really a grocery store that's close to walk to." The CYA, which runs programming out of the Stephen Foster Center, has a focus on wellness for the elderly, she says, with fitness and dance classes. "This fits right in. We're trying to instill healthy nutrition habits."
She says that the farm stand brings people to the center who otherwise wouldn't avail themselves of the programming, but find out about it from being in the parking lot.
Never underestimate the power of fresh corn and a cool watermelon in summer time.