Shifting Priorities to Address Food Disparities

By Sara Nicholas, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture

When the pandemic hit Pittsburgh, PA, Grow Pittsburgh combined a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan with grants from private sources to retain as many employees as possible as they experienced precipitous drops in sales, donations, and the volunteers they rely on. “Covid made us change the way we operated, and some of our priorities,” explains Denele Hughson, Director of Production and Farm Education. The first thing they had to do when governor’s orders shut down many public institutions was to rescue their seedlings from their leased greenhouse space, where they were given two days to vacate. They had to find new sites for the plants to grow. They had to take on tasks their volunteers and workshare clients would normally have done. And they had an urgency to get more food to more people.

“[When COVID hit], we knew we had to get more food to more people, especially in ‘food apartheid’ areas. The pandemic has been a stressful time for all involved and has brought an opportunity for Grow Pittsburgh to expand.”

-Denele Hughson, Director of Production and Farm Education, Grow Pittsburgh

Many residents in the cities where Grow Pittsburgh operates but also smaller urban and rural pockets throughout the northeast, live in food apartheid areas—that is, geographic areas, that for structural reasons, have little or no fresh local food—and the coronavirus only made things worse. With people afraid to enter grocery stores and concerned about shortages, farm stands became more important than ever. Grow Pittsburgh opened a new farm store in Braddock, PA, and opened their regular farmers markets with new social distancing and other protective measures. They moved some of their vegetable seedling sales to online orders and direct deliveries. At one site, they saw seedling sales skyrocket from 100 orders per week to selling their entire inventory each market. They were happy to be able to meet their community’s heightened interest in fresh produce as well as providing the sense of security derived from planting one’s own garden for food.

Reflecting on their experiences during the 2020 season, Grow Pittsburgh staff had several suggestions for ways state agencies could continue to provide help in this continuing crisis and in similar situations in the future:

  • Support the creation of more fresh produce stores. Food apartheid areas with limited transportation options continue to limit what many residents can purchase safely.
  • Provide grants and loans to help businesses and nonprofits expand their cold storage, which limits what produce and other foods can be kept and made available beyond market day.
  • Provide more support, through grants or loans or incentives, for community, industrial and commercial kitchens, including cooperatives. With increasing amounts of produce and other fresh items being grown in urban centers, there is a growing need for investment in expanded value-added processing, to create jobs and training opportunities, and expand food inventories.
  • Host additional rounds of urban agriculture grants to help organizations expand existing projects or rise to meet new needs.         

Read more about the Paycheck Protection Program

Read more in How State and Federal Programs Support Farmers, Fishermen, Food Entrepreneurs and Consumers in the Northeast

Photo credit: Grow Pittsburgh