Advocates bring fresh food options to ignored neighborhood

Hunger Action Month

Jammella Anderson, who started Free Food Fridge Albany, restocks one of her six sidewalk refrigerators with produce, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. The program helps feed South End residents who would face long walks or a bus trip to buy food at a supermarket. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Residents of Albany’s South End can grab fresh milk from sidewalk refrigerators, buy low-cost bananas from the Veggie Mobile or fry up fresh eggs hatched in a local coop.

Getting the same fresh food from a supermarket is more difficult.

The nearest supermarket is more than a half-mile away for many in this modest neighborhood. The sidewalk fridges, food trucks and other programs fill in gaps, especially for residents with low incomes or without cars. In an area shunned by chain supermarkets, advocates have tried other creative ways to make fresh food more accessible.

“Food insecurity is so bad in some of the more marginalized communities that we have to literally put a refrigerator outside on the street,” said Jammella Anderson, who started Free Food Fridge Albany last summer. She called the refrigerators a “Band-Aid” solution to the larger problem of a lack of resources in some communities.

Albany’s South End is a neighborhood full of brick and clapboard homes in this city of 96,000 and it stretches across areas with a majority Black population.

Dollar stores and convenience shops sell packaged foods. But people seeking a large selection of affordable produce typically face long walks or a bus trip. There’s a supermarket near the border of the neighborhood more than a mile away from many residents. Buses run to two more supermarkets about 3 miles (5 kilometers) away in suburban Glenmont.

“They don’t have stores in the South End that carry meat,” Yvette Jordan said after a bus trip to a suburban Walmart to buy fresh salmon for her family. “I have to go all the way down to Glenmont to buy groceries.”

The South End is sometimes called a “food desert” due to its limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Anderson and other activists use the term “food apartheid” because it points to systemic issues behind limited fresh food access, like discriminatory housing practices.

With grocery stores far away, advocates focus on bringing fresh groceries to the people.

Billed by the non-profit Capital Roots as a “produce aisle on wheels,” the Veggie Mobile started making stops in the capital region in 2006, later adding a second, smaller “sprout” truck. The non-profit sells produce at cost and accepts government benefit program payments. The mobile markets complement community gardens and other fresh food programs organized by the group.

“I think it’s naïve to think anyone or anything could be a one-stop solution,” said Capital Roots CEO Amy Klein. “What we as an organization try to do is give people many doors to walk through.”

Anderson’s organization pitches in with brightly painted refrigerators on the sidewalks in Albany and nearby Troy reading “Free Food” and “Comida Gratis.” Stocking a red fridge on a residential street recently with lettuce, asparagus, bananas and cheese, she said the goal is to provide the freshest, healthiest food possible.

Fresh food is also available from the Radix Center, where tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, chard and more grow on a green patch of land that used to be a vacant lot. The ecological sustainability center keeps chickens for eggs, too. They sell their fresh food at a weekly farmers market next door and offer the local food through a farm share program.

Radix sells farm shares for as little as $10 a week and plans to offer additional free shares for a second straight year if funding comes through.

“It’s a blessing,” said Willie Collins, who lives in an apartment tower across the street from the center. “I get eggs from here from Radix and prepared meals from different organizations that donate to the refrigerator.”

None of the complementary programs can entirely make up for the lack of a full-service grocery store — though advocates hope to finally fill that gap later this year.

Advocates recently announced plans to buy an empty building built as a McDonald’s on the edge of the neighborhood and convert it into “The South End Grocery” under a public-private partnership.

A space where burger and fries were served would offer fresh produce from local farms, meat and other nutritious food, said Travon Jackson of the non-profit BlueLight Development Group.

He hopes the boarded-up drive-through window could be used for hot meals. And the walk to get a fresh tomato could be a lot shorter for many South End residents.

“It’s hard to quantify just how much benefit there is in walking from your front steps to your grocery,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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